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Pelosi’s defiant Taiwan trip cements her legacy on human rights, women and China

As speculation mounts that she will retire, the House speaker visited Taiwan and stood shoulder to shoulder with its first female president in another show of opposition to China.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Taiwanese President President Tsai Ing-wen arrive for a meeting Wednesday in Taipei.Taiwan Presidential Office via AP

WASHINGTON — China warned top U.S diplomats and national security officials, members of Congress, even President Joe Biden himself that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could not set foot on Taiwan. She did anyway.

As the California Democrat made her trip his week, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in a quarter-century, the question remained: Why now.

For Pelosi, 82, the historic visit to Taiwan marks the culmination of a long and storied political career that could be nearing its end — one focused on women’s issues, human rights, democracy and national security. With rampant speculation that this could be her final year in public office, the Taiwan trip allowed her to shine the spotlight on all four critical issues and help cement her legacy.

In 1991, before she entered leadership, Pelosi and two House colleagues traveled to Beijing, stood in Tiananmen Square and unfurled a small black-and-white banner honoring “THOSE WHO DIED FOR DEMOCRACY IN CHINA” two years earlier.

Chinese officials, caught off-guard by the public act, quickly intervened and chased the trio of lawmakers out of the square, then began roughing up and detaining the journalists documenting the event.

More than three decades later, Pelosi once again infuriated China, but this time her provocative act is playing out on the international stage with millions of social media users and online flight trackers monitoring her every move.

The significance of Pelosi and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen — both the first women to hold their positions — standing shoulder to shoulder on the world stage in defiance of a superpower ruled by men was not lost on Pelosi. She broke the glass ceiling in 2007, becoming the first woman to ever hold the office of speaker of the House — a job she has now held twice.

“We are so proud of your leadership — a woman president in one of the freest societies in the world," Pelosi told Tsai, on Wednesday. “Out of a crucible of challenge, you have forged a flourishing democracy — one of the freest in the world — proudly to be led by a woman president."

When met with silence, Pelosi added, “That’s an applause line,” leading people in the hall to start clapping.

Tsai presented Pelosi with a turquoise sash, the Order of Propitious Clouds, Taiwan’s highest civilian honor, saying, “I have great admiration for Speaker Pelosi, who has long stood firm in safeguarding freedom, democracy and human rights."

Pelosi “never hesitates to confront head on rhetoric and activities said to undermine democratic values," she continued.

The Pelosi delegation’s unannounced visit to the self-ruling island, which China claims as part of its territory, worsened already high tensions in the region. A Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson accused Pelosi of “grandstanding”; Beijing summoned the U.S. ambassador in the middle of the night and launched military exercises in protest, vowing that more would come.

Undeterred by Beijing's warnings, Pelosi did not just drop in for a short layover — her six-member delegation stayed overnight in Taipei, meeting with top political, business and human rights leaders, even touring a human rights museum.

Taipei 101, the island’s tallest building, flashed a personal welcome message for Pelosi and “TW hearts US" as she landed in the capital.

The trip allowed Pelosi, once again, to play the role of chief antagonizer to China, whose political leaders she has repeatedly called out for human rights abuses, from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to the persecution of the Uyghur people.

“She has had a longtime involvement with Taiwan, and she has always been consistent in speaking out for human rights and democracy,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a close Pelosi ally who served on her leadership team when he was in the House. “I see this trip as part of her tradition on those important issues. … I think it will help her cement her legacy in that area.”

But while Pelosi publicly pokes Beijing, she has approached the complicated and highly combustible China-U.S. relationship with caution, as well.

In the days leading up to the Asia trip, Pelosi — who was the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee before she jumped into leadership — convened countless meetings in her office with lawmakers invited on the trip and top aides, a source said. Whether to go to Taiwan was weighing heavily on her as State and Defense department officials privately expressed alarm to lawmakers that a visit could provoke a military attack on Taiwan; Biden himself said Pentagon leaders did not think it was a good idea.

In the end, Pelosi made the trip, saying it symbolized America’s unwavering support for Taiwanese democracy as China’s threats grow louder that it will take back the island, by force if necessary. But she also tried to dial back the rhetoric, taking to the pages of The Washington Post to send a clear signal to Beijing that the visit “in no way contradicts the long-standing one-China policy” or the status quo that has been in place since the Carter administration.

“I know her well enough to know that she is very thorough and she spent a lot of time reviewing all of the pertinent security questions and important policy implications,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who, like Pelosi, hails from a Democratic family dynasty. Their families have known each other for decades.

Asked to sum up her groundbreaking political career, Casey replied: “It’s hard to catalog all the firsts that she’s achieved. She’s so capable, so determined, so effective in the job that she’s done."

The praise for Pelosi was bipartisan, with top Senate Republicans, like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Roy Blunt of Missouri, defending her right to travel to Taiwan.

“I’m about to use four words in a row that I haven’t used in this way before, and those four words are: Speaker Pelosi was right," Blunt told reporters Tuesday.

While Pelosi has led dozens of congressional delegations around the world, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Europe and Central America, her legacy on Capitol Hill is more closely aligned with issues at home.

She helped steer the landmark Affordable Care Act through Congress during the Obama administration, led Democrats in impeaching President Donald Trump twice and now is racing to pass Biden’s massive reconciliation package, which includes two of her pet priorities lowering prescription drug prices and addressing climate change before Republicans can win control of the House this fall.

“I remember ACA. … It seemed to me there wasn’t a pathway to get it done, and she said, ‘We’re going to go forward and get this done,’ and I thought: ‘That’s interesting. How do you do that?’” Casey recalled. “But she had a strategy, and she led the way with Harry Reid” of Nevada, then the Senate majority leader.

The roll-out of the Taiwan trip was a bit clumsy — news of it leaked to the media, and then Biden raised concerns in an off-the-cuff remark. All the while, Pelosi’s office declined to comment about any travel abroad, citing security issues, even as preparations were underway.

But those who traveled with her to Taiwan and other Asian allies said Pelosi had a broader strategy and successfully executed the high-stakes visit without incident. Her trip included bilateral meetings with Tsai and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, a visit to Taiwan's parliament, a meeting with Taiwan's largest semiconductor manufacturer and a stop at the National Museum of Human Rights.

“The speaker handled an extremely challenging situation with incredible resolve and determination,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of Pelosi’s delegation, said after their plane took off from Taiwan on Wednesday.

“She is an absolute rock star in Taiwan, and their citizenry will never forget her and the delegation’s show of unity.”