By Ariana Eunjung Cha and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 24, 2009
BEIJING, May 24 -- For the second time this year, a top U.S. official visiting China has declined in advance to publicly discuss Beijing's human rights record, a shift in practice that comes almost exactly two decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who collided with Chinese authorities in 1991 when she unfurled a banner memorializing those who died in the square, arrived here Sunday saying only that she planned to discuss climate change with Chinese officials.
At a briefing in Washington before leaving for her week-long trip, Pelosi declined to say whether she planned to discuss human rights with her hosts. Instead, she said only that she would focus on securing support for a global pact on reducing carbon emissions, in advance of a major international gathering on climate change scheduled for December in Copenhagen.
"We have to . . . learn from each other as we go forward. So that is the subject," she told reporters, ignoring several requests to address human rights issues.
In February, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on her maiden voyage as the top U.S. diplomat, also pointedly played down human rights issues when she traveled to Beijing. Clinton drew criticism from human rights activists by saying that pressing China on that issue "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." On matters such as greater freedom for Tibetans, she said, "We pretty much know what [Beijing is] going to say."
Clinton generated headlines in 1995 for a speech on human rights in Beijing as first lady, and Pelosi's advance aversion to the topic is equally striking. Although Pelosi is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Beijing since President Obama took office, she has been a frequent public critic of China, especially after Beijing sent the People's Liberation Army to quell huge pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Hundreds of people were killed, many were arrested or jailed for years, and China's relations with the West were left badly frayed.
The anniversary of the protests is 10 days away, and Beijing is highly sensitive to any commemoration of the event, for which it has never accounted.
Throughout her 22 years in Congress, Pelosi -- whose home district of San Francisco includes a large number of Chinese immigrants and their families -- has championed the cause of human rights in China. Before she became a congressional leader, she cited the Tiananmen massacre as cause for the Clinton administration to link human rights issues to normalizing trade relations with China. But in 1994, President Bill Clinton rejected that argument and delinked from the human rights issue what was then known as the most-favored-nation status. Pelosi protested the decision, to no avail.
In March 2008, Pelosi condemned China's rule of Tibet when violent riots erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and the Chinese government responded by taking into custody monks and others it suspected of having a role. She said "freedom-loving people" should "speak out against China's oppression in Tibet." Pelosi also said the International Olympic Committee made a mistake in awarding the Summer Games to Beijing, because of its human rights record.
During this trip, by contrast, Pelosi and members of the Select Committee on Climate Change and Energy Independence will meet with government officials, business leaders and students. On Tuesday, she is scheduled to give a speech at an event hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China about how China and the United States together account for nearly half the global energy demand and how clean technology can help solve the problem. She will also visit Shanghai.
Pragmatism now seems to be driving the U.S. agenda. The Obama administration has high hopes of winning China's cooperation on reducing harmful greenhouse gases, while close coordination between the two countries on economic issues has become critical amid the ongoing global financial crisis.
China is the biggest foreign holder of U.S. debt, which helped finance the spending binge the United States went on before the economic crisis. Some experts have expressed concern that China's substantial holdings of U.S. debt give it increased leverage in dealings with Washington because any halt in Chinese purchases of U.S. bonds would make it more difficult to finance the government bailout and stimulus packages.
Reflecting Washington's concern, Clinton even publicly urged China during her visit to keep investing its substantial foreign-exchange reserves in U.S. Treasury securities, saying, "We are truly going to rise or fall together."
Kessler reported from Washington. Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.