Aug 07 After rebuke, Bush eager to embrace Olympics

Aug. 07, 2008, 7:53 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) President Bush's Olympic odyssey started with a game of political one-upmanship Thursday, as his blunt critique of the host country prompted China to warn the U.S. president to stop meddling in its business.

The dustup over human rights unfolded just as Bush arrived in Beijing with hopes that the summer games would be all he has ever expected from them: a spirited sporting event devoid of politics.

Yet the White House also knew it would draw China's ire by challenging its crackdown on human rights. The rhetorical barbs were likely to recede quickly as the games began.

As the United States and China tussle over trade deficits, currency policy and other issues, Bush came here talking of another competition between the countries - the title of the nation taking home the most gold medals.

Bush is a president who speaks fluent sports, who hopes to go bike riding again on Beijing's trails, who has carved out time to watch Olympic basketball, baseball and more. But his rebuke of how China stifles free speech and religion - unveiled by the White House on Wednesday, then delivered in a speech Thursday by Bush - kicked up controversy. It is the matter that has dogged the Beijing Games: China's treatment of its own people.

After Bush said the United States firmly opposed China's repression, the Chinese government used virtually the same language to describe what it considers Bush's intrusions.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang admonished Bush, saying "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues." He also said the Chinese government is dedicated to promoting basic rights, and that "Chinese citizens have freedom of religion.These are indisputable facts."

The China venture got off to a bumpy start when a charter airplane carrying the White House press corps was detained for nearly three hours Friday at Beijing's international airport not long after Bush arrived to attend the Games.

The flight crew was told the Chinese were insisting that all luggage be inspected. Typically, reporters, photographers and camera crews are able to get off the White House press charter right after landing, board buses and head to their hotels and work areas while U.S. State Department officials process immigration and customs details.

Politics, at least peripherally, have always been part of the Olympics. This time, too.

In four days in Beijing, Bush will confer with Chinese President Hu Jintao, meet other Chinese leaders and call for greater religious freedom. Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, will help dedicate a shimmering new U.S. embassy on Friday. The elder Bush once was the American ambassador to China.

Yet if there is a hidden agenda in the president's visit, it is the open space on his weekend planner. White House aides insist he will fill it by attending athletic events.

Bush's presence is a precedent. He will be the first U.S. president to ever attend an Olympics on foreign soil when he soaks up the splendor of Friday's opening ceremony.

"The reason I'm going to the Olympics is twofold: one, to show my respect for the people of China; and two, to cheer on the U.S. team," Bush said this week. Then he thought about that for a second and reversed the order, saying pride in U.S. teams is his top motivation.

In the midst of a farewell trip to Asia, Bush tried to offer a stand against China's repression and dispense with the issue at the same time.

Questioned in South Korea about China's crackdown on human rights, Bush flatly called it a mistake. In a major speech in Thailand, he said the United States firmly opposes the way China stifles dissent and admonished the communist country to trust its people with freedom.

It was a repackaging of principles Bush has stated before, but given the timing, the president was clearly answering critics who fear his presence legitimizes China's conduct.

China takes enormous pride in hosting the games, as any nation would. But the stakes seem particularly high for a country seeking a more positive public image across the globe.

The sports are part of that, too. China is trying to top the United States in gold medals this time, employing a state-sponsored system that taps children at young ages for training.

Bush wants the U.S. to rack up the gold, too. Presidents, like athletes, want first place.

He told Olympians at the White House last month that they are more than sports competitors. In what sounded like a message to China, he called U.S. Olympians "ambassadors of liberty" who represent America's "regard for human rights and human dignity."

Amid the competition and criticism, Bush's agenda is dotted with examples of U.S.-China cooperation.

On Friday, he will dedicate the new embassy in the Chinese capital, a bookend to China's unveiling of its imposing new embassy in Washington earlier this year. The U.S. Embassy event is to be at precisely 8:08 a.m.; eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture.

Bush and many other foreign leaders at the games will hook up at a social lunch hosted by Hu on Friday. It may lend itself to pull-aside chats, but Bush plans only formal talks on this trip.

Bush will meet the president of the International Olympic Committee later in the day, and then members of the U.S. Olympic Team for a presidential pep talk. At night comes the elaborate opening ceremony. Tickets are hard to come by, unless you're a president.

Over the weekend, Bush on Saturday will meet with Olympic sponsors and watch women's basketball. He and family members with him will likely choose other events to attend.

On Sunday, he will attend a Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, the same practice he followed during his last visit to China in 2005. He then plans to take in some men's and women's Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon. Bush will meet with Hu at his presidential compound, and then hold sessions with China's vice president and premier. Then its back to sports on Sunday night: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game.

On Monday, the president will attend a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China. He is expected to add in other sporting events before flying back to Washington that day.

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