Before a Chinese audience in Beijing this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi identified what she called a "game-changing" issue in U.S.-China relations: global warming. That's a game changing statement for Pelosi herself: For years, the Democratic representative has underscored a different issue when it comes to China: human rights.
The environmental emphasis isn't surprising considering Pelosi is traveling in China this week with members of a House committee on global warming and energy. But the scarce mention of human rights is surprising considering the fast-approaching 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 (see "The Tiananmen generation")-and Pelosi's charged past with the communist nation over its abysmal human-rights record.
Two years after Chinese military killed thousands of student protesters and other civilians in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, Pelosi unfurled a banner in the same square on a 1991 trip to the region. The banner proclaimed: "To those who died for democracy in China."
During the 1990s, Pelosi vocally opposed normal trade relations with China. Last March, Pelosi met with the Dalai Lama and condemned China over its oppression of Tibet. Last summer, the speaker urged President George W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing as a protest over China's human-rights violations. Pelosi's protests drew condemnation from Chinese officials. A commentary in the country's state-run news service called the speaker "a disgusting figure."
But this week Pelosi mostly has been welcomed in China. That's likely because the speaker has adopted a softer tone, reflecting the Obama administration's evolving approach to foreign relations. The speaker said she remains committed to promoting human rights in China, but her only mention of the topic came in the context of global warming. She said, "Indeed, protecting the environment is a human-rights issue."
In a more unexpected statement, Pelosi tipped her hat to evangelicals when she spoke of building a coalition to work on global warming: "One important part of the coalition is the faith-based community, including the evangelicals, because they believe as many of us do, that this planet is God's creation and it is our moral responsibility to preserve it."
That statement was notable in a communist nation that regularly suppresses freedom of religion, particularly among Christians. But Chinese Christians may have been more eager for Pelosi to argue for their right to worship freely than their contribution to environmentalism. This month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included China in its list of countries of particular concern, reporting, "Religious activities are tightly controlled and some religious adherents were detained, imprisoned, fined, beaten, and harassed."