Bush to China leaders: Widen religious, political freedoms

BEIJING - President Bush continued to urge Chinese leaders Sunday to allow their citizens more political and religious freedoms as he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other top Chinese officials on the opening weekend of the Olympic Games.

Since the beginning of his six-day Asian tour, Bush has repeatedly brought up human rights issues, to the irritation of his hosts in Beijing, while at the same time praising Chinese reforms that have opened up this nation of 1.3 billion people to record economic growth.

On Sunday, Bush attended church services at the Beijing Kuanjie Protestant Christian Church with much of his family, a provocative act in a country where Christians are limited by law to worshiping at state-approved churches. The Associated Press reported that Chinese authorities detained a worshipper, Hua Huqui, on his way to the service attended by Bush Sunday.

After the service, Bush alluded to Chinese religious restrictions, saying, "You know, it just goes to show that God is universal, and God is love, and no state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion."

Bush pressed the matter hours later with Hu, telling him the church service gave him "a spirit-filled, good feeling." He added, "As you know, I feel very strongly about religion, and I am so appreciative of the chance to go to church here in your society."

Later, in a private meeting, Bush again urged Hu to improve China's human rights record, saying greater freedoms would unleash "a certain creativity in your society," according to Dennis Wilder, National Security Council senior director for East Asian affairs.

Watchdog groups report the Chinese government has intensified its crackdown on dissidents and maintained its restrictions on domestic news media in the run-up to the Summer Games, which started here on Friday.

"(Bush) told President Hu that this is an important aspect of the U.S.-China dialogue, and that the Chinese can expect that any future American president will also make it an important aspect of our dialogue," Wilder said.

Wilder said Hu hinted that the Chinese government planned to widen religious freedoms.

"I think President Hu was saying, 'You've gone to church today and you've seen Christians worshiping openly in our society,'" Wilder said. "I took it to mean that, I think in the future there will be more room for Christians and other religious groups in this society."

Since arriving in Beijing from his tour of South Korea and Thailand, Bush had dedicated most of his time to catching sporting events and posing for photos with U.S. athletes, including watching U.S. swimmer's Michael Phelps' gold medal-winning race in the 400-meter individual medley Sunday morning. Bush returns to Washington Monday.

Bush's sports weekend, however, has been interrupted by unexpected violence in both the separatist Georgian province of South Ossetia and in the heart of Beijing.

Responding to Georgian moves to retake South Ossetia, Russian forces began bombing targets inside the province Saturday, and ground forces were moving into the region.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino called the Russian attacks "deplorable" and added that Bush had spoken by telephone to both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Bush has also responded to violence in Beijing, after a Chinese assailant stabbed Todd and Barbara Bachman, parents of 2004 U.S. Olympic volleyball team member Elisabeth Bachman and in-laws of this year's U.S. men's indoor volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon.

Todd Bachman died of injuries from Saturday's attack in Beijing's historic center, while Barbara Bachman remained in critical but stable condition Sunday at a Beijing hospital after about eight hours of surgery, a U.S. Olympic Committee press release said. McCutcheon did not coach the U.S. team's Sunday afternoon match, in which the U.S. team beat Venezuela, 3 sets to 2.

During Sunday's meeting, Hu offered "profound sympathy" for the attack and told Bush the Chinese government took the attack "very seriously." Hu said Chinese officials would keep their U.S. counterparts informed of the progress of their investigations into the crime.

The two leaders also discussed joint efforts to reign in Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program and the $387 billion-a-year U.S.-China trade relationship.

Later, Bush and his family, including his father, former President and U.S. Ambassador to China George H.W. Bush, had "an extremely special lunch" at the government's Zhongnanhai leadership compound with Hu and his family, Wilder said. Bush also met with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Despite the diplomatic words, Chinese officials have shown irritation with Bush's repeated criticisms. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday, "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries' internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues."

That, however, hasn't stop Bush from repeating his calls for more liberties.

"America has spoken candidly and consistently about our concerns over the Chinese government's behavior," Bush said in a Saturday radio address. "We have made it clear that trusting their people with greater freedom is necessary for China to reach its full potential."