The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Before the state dinner, a breakfast for ‘stateless’ Chinese

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and President Obama during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

While John Boehner was preparing to renounce the speakership, I was listening to his predecessor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, address the Stateless Breakfast in Honor of Human Rights in China. Pelosi’s presence was a reminder that power can be used for more than preserving power — it can be used to speak up for the powerless.

“We will continue to state the facts, to act upon the challenge, to recognize the urgency,” Pelosi said.

The “stateless” breakfast was intended to contrast with tonight’s state dinner in honor of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and there was a contrast: Long security lines to get into the Capitol Visitor Center in place of Marine escorts, and a self-serve table of bagels and muffins rather than tonight’s dessert — poppyseed bread-and-butter pudding with Meyer lemon curd and lychee sorbet.

“We can’t compete with that,” the emcee of the breakfast, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), acknowledged. “Nonetheless, I would rather be here than there.”

Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who escaped torture and house arrest to find refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and then exile here, said he will always be grateful to the United States for letting him live in freedom. But he rebuked President Obama for offering Xi “an honor we should reserve for those we respect and admire.” Tonight’s red carpet, Chen said, will be “red with the blood” of Tibetans, Falun Gong believers and human rights lawyers and activists.

Members of Congress at the event weren’t quite so sharp; they said they, like Obama, favor engagement with China, but engagement that doesn’t forget human rights. I agree; that’s why I suggest holding the state dinner but setting a few empty places to for imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and other freedom fighters.

Pelosi said she’s learned from speaking to former prisoners that one of the most terrible punishments they endure is being told by their captors that they’ve been forgotten. “We want to be sure that every political prisoner,” she said, “knows we carry them in our hearts, and that we speak about them at our forums.”

At least at one forum Friday, political prisoners were remembered.