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Pelosi Avoids Human Rights on China Visit

May 28, 2009

By Austin Ramzy / Beijing
Time Magazine
May 27, 2009

In a speech Tuesday at a Beijing conference on
climate change, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
said that global warming "is a game changer in
the U.S.-China relationship." For the California
Democrat's relationship with China, it already
has been. She has gone from being one of the most
officially reviled public figures in China to
someone who is tolerated, if not exactly celebrated.

A year ago Pelosi was labeled a "disgusting
figure" in a commentary by the state-run Xinhua
news service. Her longtime support of human
rights — as a U.S. representative in 1991 she
helped unveil a banner in Tiananmen Square
honoring "those who died for democracy in China"
— is seen by some mainland observers as a means
to intimidate the country. When riots erupted
across Tibet in March 2008, Pelosi met with the
Dalai Lama in India and denounced China, calling
on the world to pressure the Chinese leadership.
Xinhua responded by saying that "she confused
right with wrong on...Tibet, held double
standards to interfere in China's internal
affairs, (and) hurt the feelings of the Chinese
people and impaired China-U.S. relations." (See
pictures from the Dalai Lama's 60 years as a leader.)

Ahead of this week's visit to China, Pelosi's
first as Speaker of the House,there was some
nervousness in China that the high-ranking
Democrat would publicly raise human rights
concerns at a sensitive time in Beijing — just
one week before the 20th anniversary of the
Tiananmen massacre.But thus far the American
politician, who is facing questions at home about
what she knew of the CIA's waterboarding of
terrorism suspects, has given her hosts little to
worry about. When she did mention human rights,
it was in a broad context of international
relations rather than specific criticism of
China's record. "In every country, not just China
and the U.S., the global climate crisis is best
surmounted with transparency and openness,
respect for the rule of law, and accountability
to the people," she said in her Beijing talk.

The new approach has been welcomed in China. "At
the beginning I was surprised," says Zhu Feng, a
international studies professor at Peking
University. "She is a big mouth and a very harsh
critic of Chinese human rights and Tibetan
issues." Zhu believes that the environment will
be a key issue in the future of Sino-U.S.
relations, and that Pelosi is smart to embrace
it. Her approach follows the tack taken by
Hillary Clinton in February during her first
visit to China as U.S. secretary of state.
Clinton, who has also been critical of China's
rights record, said she wasn't going to allow the
issue to hamper cooperation on climate change and the global economic crisis.

Still, Chinese observers aren't ready to declare
a new era in relations with the U.S. "I think its
evidenced of a broader approach," says Zhu. "For
Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, the human
rights tool remains on the table, but this time
they pick up another one from the tool kit. I
don't think their deliberate silence over the
human rights controversies between two countries
means that now human rights differences are truly
fading away. The stipulation is when it will be coming back."

Indeed, ahead of Pelosi's arrival in Beijing
there were signs that the issue still inflames
passions. News footage shot outside a Beijing
train station showed hundreds of petitioners —
people who regularly come to the capital to ask
the central government to right injustices they
face at home — protested on the street. One group
held up a sign that said read, ""Welcome Pelosi.
Pay close attention to human rights. SOS."
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