US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit China

BEIJING, China Pelosi is coming at the invitation of her counterpart, the Communist Party politician who heads the largely powerless national legislature. After stopping in Shanghai, she will meet with President Hu Jintao and other leaders and speak at a major university.

Her visit itself is startling. Pelosi has long castigated China over human rights and argued Beijing should be denied trading rights and the Olympics. When Tibetans erupted in protests against Chinese rule last year, Pelosi visited their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. During a 1991 visit to Beijing, she unfurled a banner that read "To those who died for democracy in China" on Tiananmen Square, where the military had crushed pro-democracy protests two years before.

Chinese officials have privately reviled her and used the state media to rebuke her. When she was appointed to the powerful speaker's job in 2006, the Southern Weekend newspaper worried that "a Congress under Pelosi's leadership will not only concern itself with China's internal human rights situation but also China's overseas activities with neighboring countries and Africa."

But the visit reflects a willingness on both the Chinese and U.S. governments to put relations on a firmer footing as China's power and influence grow and Washington grapples with a faltering economy as well as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the early years of previous presidencies, China has not become a political punching bag in President Barack Obama's first months. One of Pelosi's events will be a U.S. business forum on climate change -- an issue Washington and Beijing have pledged cooperation.

"It's a good opportunity for the Chinese government to explain their policies on human rights and other issues to Pelosi face-to-face. The conversation itself carries some significance, even if we shouldn't expect much in the way of direct results," said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

Pelosi's office had no immediate comment on her upcoming visit, which comes less than a week before the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement. The National People's Congress, China's legislature, issued only a brief statement saying she was coming at the invitation of NPC leader Wu Bangguo. Privately, Chinese officials said that Pelosi herself first expressed interest in visiting China again.

Aside from human rights and climate change, the U.S. and Chinese governments are also coordinating in trying to shore up the global economy and discussing ways to check the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

Also visiting China at the same time is U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and fellow Democrat Sen. John Kerry. Following them will be Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who will try to assuage Chinese concerns about the strength of the dollar and thus the value of China's vast holdings of U.S. Treasury notes.

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