It was 1991, two years after protesters were crushed by Communist Party forces in Tiananmen Square, when Nancy Pelosi, then a little-known representative from California, paid her first official visit to China.
The congresswoman escaped her government minders and snuck to the site of the infamous massacre in Beijing. There she unfurled a small, hand-painted banner which read in both Mandarin and English: “To those who died for democracy in China.”
She had been warned against such a trip at a time when US-China relations were at a historic low. But Pelosi has never been a woman to be told “no”.
It was no surprise, then, that the 82-year-old House Speaker forged ahead with this week’s trip to the self-ruled island of Taiwan, despite the objections of President Joe Biden – a long-time ally of Ms Pelosi, but one not fond of her often-combative style of diplomacy.
Well over retirement age, and serving out what many on Capitol Hill speculate will be her final term as speaker, Pelosi judged it to be a legacy-defining moment. The trip, as she herself framed it, set down a marker for democracy over autocracy. The visit by the most powerful woman in Washington was a culmination of decades of opposition to China, which those close to her say is driven both by a sense of righteousness and her solidarity with the American-Taiwanese community in her San Francisco constituency.
She helped lead a resolution condemning China’s actions in 1989 as a newly elected member of Congress. In the years that followed, she repeatedly clashed with leaders of her own party – most notably President Bill Clinton – over the US’s improving economic relationship with China and its ascension to the World Trade Organisation.
At a 2002 meeting in Washington with Chinese then-Vice-President Hu Jintao, Pelosi tried to pass him letters expressing concern over the detention and imprisonment of activists in Tibet, and calling for their release. She would later lead a group of House Democrats to Tibet where she met the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. She described Tibetans’ protests against Chinese rule at the time as “a challenge to the conscience of the world”. Most recently she has offered her support to the Hong Kong protesters calling for independence, meeting pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong on Capitol Hill.
The banner-waving in Tiananmen Square was an international incident that helped cement Pelosi’s position as America’s chief China critic. At the time of the 1991 trip, the daughter of a former Baltimore mayor was facing re-election against Harry Britt, who became a champion for combatting the Aids epidemic that was raging in San Francisco. Pelosi, then 49, had the political pedigree, but no cause. Her visit to Tiananmen Square, the story that launched CNN’s 24-hour news cycle, catapulted her career onto the national stage and China’s abuse of human rights became the issue that stuck with her over the years, strengthened by her close relationship with the American-Chinese community.
But Mike Chinoy, a former CNN Beijing bureau chief who was arrested while covering Pelosi’s political protest, is more cynical than most about the congresswoman’s aggressive approach.
“Having witnessed China’s 1989 crackdown, I certainly had – and still have – strong views and emotions about what happened then,” he tells me. “I did feel that Pelosi’s gesture – especially the fact that we were told she was going to the square but not what she actually planned to do – was more of a political stunt.
“It was my first experience with Pelosi’s penchant for high-profile gestures designed to poke China’s communist rulers in the eye, regardless of the consequences,” adds Chinoy, now a Taipei-based non-resident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute.
He looks at her Taiwan trip as “very much symbolism over substance”, but concedes that he doesn’t doubt that her views on China are “deep-held and genuine”. “They go back to her response to Tiananmen and her initial efforts to help Chinese students in the US in the aftermath,” he added.
Yet this time around, the stakes are much higher. Beijing has been manoeuvring in the Taiwan Strait, intent on demonstrating the cost of foreign dignitaries’ meddling. It will be the island and its population of 23 million, not America, that will feel the consequences of Pelosi’s posturing. China’s leadership, which governs with an uncompromising authoritarianism, will have been left confused by Washington’s mixed messaging. At the same time as Biden has reached out to Xi to calm tensions, his top lawmaker appears intent on stoking them.
Details of Pelosi’s visit were leaked to the media, likely by someone close to the administration, in the hope that an irate China would push Biden into cowing her. “They picked the wrong person,” says Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, who has worked with Ms Pelosi on China’s human rights record. “She is someone who can’t be intimidated. She doesn’t give in to bullies.”
Much of the disquiet in Beijing has been over Pelosi’s timing. The Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th congress this autumn, when Xi is expected to take on a controversial third term as president. Those who know Pelosi, however, privately suggest that among her considerations will have been the optics of her standing up to a global superpower in an effort to burnish her political legacy, with Democrats predicted to lose control of the House in the all-important November midterms.
Back home, the trip has been widely viewed as a success. The grande dame of the Democratic Party is deeply unpopular among Republicans, many of whom see her as an interfering coastal elite pushing a radical domestic agenda. Yet more than two-dozen GOP representatives signed a letter in support of her visit.
“We have enormous disagreements on 98 or 99 percent of things, but on this one, I think her instinct is right,” said Newt Gingrich in a statement. He was the last such senior US politician to visit Taiwan, 25 years ago. Congress has always taken a more hawkish line on Taiwan than the White House, whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. And Pelosi has worked across party lines with the GOP to pass several big bills, including one to sanction Beijing for selling goods to America made with Uyghur Muslim forced labour.
Her aggressive anti-China stance in Congress has left her walking a careful tightrope with her voting base in San Francisco, where she represents one of the largest Asian-American communities in America. A small group from the US-China Peoples Friendship Association organised protests on Tuesday in the city’s downtown area.
Julie Tang, a retired judge who attended the demonstration, told me Pelosi’s trip was a “very, very bad idea”. A lifelong Democrat, like most Asian-Americans, Tang had contributed to Pelosi’s political campaigns but is now rethinking her party affiliation. The speaker, she said, was “acting like a Republican, like an imperialist”. Anti-Asian attacks are already on the rise in the US and she worries the community will feel any fallout from worsening relations between the two nuclear powers.
David Lee, a political science lecturer in San Francisco, says that in the 35 years that Pelosi has represented the city of 187,000 Chinese- and Taiwanese-Americans, sympathies among her constituents have shifted decisively away from Taiwan independence. But for the most part, Chinese-Americans – most of whom are second, third and even fourth generation – pay little attention to what is happening across the Pacific.
In which case, Pelosi, who regularly garners over 75 per cent support in elections, need not worry too much about the personal cost of her trip. “We love you, Nancy,” reads a sign that a Taiwanese-born merchant has stuck up in an electronics shop in Chinatown this week. “Two more years!”