Bush, in China for Olympics, offers praise, criticism

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 8, 2008 

SPORTS OLY-OLYMPICS-BUSH 3 ABA

U.S. President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush, left, are greeted by President Hu Jintao and Madame Liu Yongqing in The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (Abaca Press /MCT)

ABACA PRESS — Abaca Press / MCT

BEIJING _ President Bush started a four-day visit to China Friday with a mixed message of praise for Chinese economic policies but criticism of the Chinese approach toward religious and political freedoms, a strategy that has so far marked his three-nation Asian tour.

That dual-edged message came through Friday morning when he inaugurated a $434 million, 500,000-square-foot U.S. embassy in the heart of Beijing that will be the U.S.'s second biggest embassy, only behind the U.S. complex in Baghdad.

After promising to "support China on the path toward a free economy," Bush called on Chinese leaders to allow more freedoms to their citizens. Rights advocates say the Chinese government has stepped up repression of dissidents in advance of the Olympic Games, which start Friday night.

"We must work together to protect the environment and help people in the developing world, continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose," Bush said. "We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful."

Hours later, at a pre-Olympic luncheon for world leaders, Bush set a different tone as he climbed the steps of the monumental Chinese parliament building, the Great Hall of the People, and happily shook hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Bush has aimed for such a balance since he began his tour Wednesday with a stop in South Korea, where he issued similar criticisms. Bush also met with five prominent Chinese dissidents at the White House before his trip.

That dual message may help Bush satisfy both domestic critics of China's human rights record and U.S. business leaders, but it's unlikely to spark real reforms by China's Communist Party-dominated government, said U.S. political analyst Russell Leigh Moses, who's based in China.

For Chinese leaders, economic development trumps human rights, and such admonishments from the West are usually ignored, Moses said. Since opening to world markets in 1978, the country's economy has grown by nearly 10 percent annually and quickly become the world's third biggest.

"The administration sees this trip as the last throw to make its stand on this issue before Bush leaves office," Moses said. "What it actually does is remind the Chinese leadership that there are constraints on their efforts to expand the relationship with the U.S.

"In their view, Bush should stay quiet."

Bush has left no doubt that he views the U.S.-China relationship as a crucial one. Joining Bush in Beijing is his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who was U.S. ambassador to China, his wife, Laura, daughter, Barbara, sister Doro Bush and brother Marvin Bush.

Both Bush presidents, along with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who negotiated the U.S. opening to China during the Nixon administration, attended the embassy inauguration.

Yet Bush also irritated Chinese leaders by repeatedly urging them to ease up on restrictions of religious and press freedoms.

"We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights not to antagonize China's leaders," Bush said Thursday in Thailand, "but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded by telling Bush to stay out of China's business.

"The Chinese government puts people first and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens' basic rights and freedom," Qin said. "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries' internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues."

The rest of the weekend should be a low-key one for Bush, with his schedule filled mainly with private meetings and sporting events. Bush's biggest agenda item will be a private meeting with the Chinese president and other top Chinese officials Sunday afternoon.

He greeted U.S. athletes early Friday night and is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Summer Games later Friday. Bush is also scheduled to talk to U.S. business leaders Saturday and attend church Sunday morning. After church, Bush is expected to speak to reporters about religious freedoms, which are restricted in China.

The president's agenda also calls for him to attend competitions by U.S. swimmers, basketball players and baseball players.

Human rights advocates said they hope Bush steps up the rhetoric and demands real reforms from the Chinese government.

Sharon Hom, executive director of the advocacy group Human Rights in China, said the president could start by requesting the release of several dissidents thrown in jail over the past months for criticizing government preparations for the Olympic Games.

"The focus should move away from what leaders say to what they do," Hom said. "World leaders should use every opportunity possible to demand concrete human rights action."

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