As she has ascended the political ladder in Washington, Nancy Pelosi has worked hard to present herself as a caring, grandmotherly lady, even while proving one of the toughest politicians on the Hill. Referring to herself as a grandmother helped soften Pelosi's image; early in the morning after the Democrats' election triumph, for instance, when President Bush called to congratulate her, she joked that she was actually waiting to hear whether she was about to be a grandma for the sixth time.

But even an endless array of grandkids probably would not make the Chinese government view Pelosi warmly. For decades, the speaker-to-be of the House has been one of the harshest critics of Beijing, and her tough, committed stance on China helped her define the party's policy toward the country in the 1990s. She opposed normalizing trade with China, she proved a tough backer of Taiwan, and, in 1991, she demonstrated in Tiananmen Square. There, she whipped out a banner commemorating the Chinese who had died in the square two years earlier. And Pelosi's activism has had a major impact. She has been a prominent voice for endangered minorities in China--such as Tibetans--sometimes when few other congresspeople paid attention. After the Tiananmen crackdown, she helped Chinese students in the United States gain permanent residency.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Chinese scholars and state-dominated media outlets did not exactly welcome Pelosi's ascension to the head of Congress. "This old woman has a great bias against China," Jin Canrong, a scholar at Renmin University in Beijing, announced shortly after Election Day. "Pelosi is still an out-and-out member of the Taiwan-lovers faction," echoed the Chongqing Morning Post, a newspaper in one of China's most populous cities. In Washington, Chinese diplomats have been quietly asking their American counterparts what Pelosi might do as speaker.

Now, Pelosi has her biggest platform yet. She could use the speaker's pulpit to attack Beijing. She could appoint the head of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a prominent body that monitors the impact of trade with China on U.S. national security. She could hold hearings on China's international behavior. Working with Charles Rangel, the new chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Pelosi could signal a new direction on trade issues with China--like enacting high tariffs on certain Chinese imports--to punish Beijing for artificially depressing its currency. Rangel, for one, has already suggested he will take a harder approach toward trade with Beijing. As The Wall Street Journal reported today, Pelosi and Rangel "have argued that China's holdings of U.S. Treasury bills, valued at $339 billion as of August, pose a threat to U.S. national security." In addition, Pelosi aides told the Journal, the new speaker will allow tough bills on China to come to the House floor, where they can be debated, rather than stopping them in a committee.

Only trouble is, China today is not the same country it was in 1991. In many respects, it remains as repressive--a situation Pelosi needs to highlight. As it did in the early '90s, China also continues to attract jobs away from lower-value U.S. manufacturing, including manufacturing in many of the Midwest districts the Democrats just won. But China also has become far more powerful, and much harder for the United States to do anything about--a situation Pelosi, and other Democrats long in the wilderness, will have to deal with.
When Pelosi and other House Democrats last held power, in the early '90s, Congress had much more leverage over Beijing. The United States had not yet granted China permanent normal trade relations, and Congress could still threaten a denial of normal trade relations as a significant weapon. Beijing remained a pariah in many parts of the world because of the relatively recent Tiananmen crackdown, and its international relationships were limited and feeble. China had not yet amassed such sizable reserves of U.S. currency, and, though it was a magnet for foreign investment, it was still only a medium-sized global economic power.

In the past decade and a half, all that has changed. As memories of Tiananmen have faded, and as China has become a more sophisticated diplomatic actor, it has significantly improved its global image--polls by the Program on International Policy Attitudes suggest China's international image today is better than that of the United States. China's stronger image makes it far harder for the United States to build alliances against China on any issue. In fact, in contrast to 15 years ago, the United States now increasingly relies on China as an interlocutor with rogue regimes like North Korea. Beijing also now has some $1 trillion in reserves of U.S. dollars, making it a major creditor, and the U.S. and Chinese economies are far more interlinked than they were 15 years ago. Any significant downturn in the Chinese economy, including a downtown created by significant trade restrictions, would devastate many U.S. companies. Any decrease in China's reserves would make it far harder for the United States to run the current account deficit that keeps America's economy humming.

Today, Pelosi--and the whole Democratic Party--needs a new China policy. This policy must draw upon the progressive values Pelosi stands for. But this policy must also recognize that China has become too powerful to be contained or thoroughly sanctioned. Such an approach would recognize that China now is both dangerously strong and dangerously weak, capable of challenging the Unites States abroad and capable of imploding into a financial or political crisis that, because of China's links to the world, could threaten the U.S. economy.

A progressive China policy could start by reemphasizing the liberal values--human rights, labor, and environmental issues in China--too often abandoned when a new party comes into power in Washington. This could include more openly chastising Beijing for the anti-reform policies of Chinese President Hu Jintao, who has cracked down on the press, the Internet, and civil society. It could mean more regular, tougher hearings scrutinizing U.S. companies that overlook Chinese human rights and labor abuses, along the lines of the hearings that questioned whether Google and other Internet giants were helping Beijing control the Web. It also could include pushing through tough legislation reforming the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the panel that scrutinizes foreign investment into national-security-sensitive U.S. assets. It could include marshalling a community of democracies that would work together to promote liberal reforms in Asia, a longstanding idea that has not attracted much support in Washington.

At the same time, the Democrats must realize that the Washington has to engage with Beijing on issues that do not threaten the possibility of reform within China--and that the United States and China are tightly interconnected on economic issues. Indeed, the United States and China could work together on many important foreign issues. As China begins to play a larger role in regions like Africa and Asia, the United States could offer Beijing a chance to take the lead on important issues (malaria, bird flu, or peacekeeping), giving China a chance to be a responsible actor--and then criticize Beijing if it refuses to take that chance.

Perhaps only Nancy Pelosi, who wields enormous credibility within the party on China issues, could sell such a policy to the Democrats, at a time when economic nationalists like Sherrod Brown appear on the ascendance, and China itself has been backsliding on many human rights issues. If she does, the lady who helped define Democratic policy in the '90s could do it again, for this decade.

This article was originally published in the online version of The New Republic, November 16, 2006.