WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi attributes her intolerance for Chinese human rights abuses in part to her late father -- former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. -- who, she says, instilled in his children a firm belief that when people need help, the last thing to do is turn away.
"As a girl, I knew what to do if someone called needing a bed in City Hospitals," said the San Francisco Democrat. "I knew how to place people in housing projects or on welfare. My parents' home was a place where people came to find respect."
Representing the congressional district with the largest Asian population outside Hawaii, Pelosi has focused that concern in recent years on China. Yesterday, as President Clinton prepared to welcome Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to town for talks on China's world trade status, she sent a strong message to the president: Political prisoners in China are calling for help, and it's time for the United States to answer the phone.
For Pelosi, who backs Clinton on nearly everything but his China policies, this was nothing new. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, she has emerged in the vanguard of a coalition that crosses ideological lines and opposes expanding trade partnerships with China until it improves its human rights record.
Her critics say Pelosi is posturing for her constituents as she advocates an unrealistic policy that is harmful to improving relations with China.
For Pelosi and her allies, Zhu's trip could mark a critical hour. While they don't rule out China's admission into the World Trade Organization, they fear that admission would make it more difficult for Western countries to use economic threats such as tariffs and sanctions to force China to comply with international human rights law.
Flanked by a poster-sized photograph of a Chinese man standing defiantly in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, Pelosi yesterday called on Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to ask Zhu to recognize the Tiananmen Square protest as a pro-democracy effort.
The Chinese government has labeled participants as "counter-revolutionary" criminals, and 144 individuals in Beijing remain behind bars for their participation, according to Chinese dissident groups.
"These people heeded our country's call for democratic freedom," Pelosi said. "They copied our Statue of Liberty, quoted our Founding Fathers and got crushed. And we turned our back on them."
Pelosi called on the president to demand that China release citizens jailed for using their right of free expression.
She also lent her support to the administration's effort to pass a resolution critical of China's human rights abuses in the United Nations Human Rights Commission, currently meeting in Geneva.
Pelosi, elected in 1987 to represent a district that is 27 percent Asian, has long been considered a crusader by many Chinese political dissidents and exiles. When Chinese President Jiang Zemin met at the White House with Clinton in October 1997, Pelosi was at a boisterous human rights rally across the street in Lafayette Park.
"She's a saint, and she speaks the heart and mind of the democracy movement," said Joel Segal, co-founder of Free China Movement, an umbrella group for more than 30 dissident organizations worldwide.
Segal stressed that, while China signed the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights last year, threats of economic punishment by the United States are needed to enforce it.
"China is laughing all the way to the bank," he said. "Why even have international laws for human rights? If China's not going to follow them, what's the point?"
James Lilley, U.S. ambassador to China from 1989 to 1991, said Pelosi's focus on human rights in China is off target.
Embracing a position the Clinton administration has been trumpeting, Lilley said that now is a time to celebrate the progress that has been made in China -- such as citizens being lifted out of poverty and the doors being opened to Western culture -- and realize that it takes years to re-shape political institutions enough so that open expression does not lead to imprisonment.
Lilley said the news conferences and speeches by Pelosi whenever Clinton engages China are not constructive.
"If you're posturing, you're doing it for a domestic audience," he said. "It poisons the atmosphere if it gets too strident. It's feely-goody, sticking your tongue out at them. If you want to get people into better human rights conditions, this ain't gonna help."
Pelosi said yesterday that she has never forgiven Clinton for deciding in 1994 to separate human rights and trade in negotiations with China.
"This is not to pick a fight," she said of her efforts. "It's to find a common ground. But with this president, when you think you've found common ground, it moves. I say that with great sadness as a Democrat."
Pub Date: 4/08/99