BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) China rejected President Bush's criticism Thursday of its human rights record and restrictions on religion, diplomatically telling him to stay out of its affairs even as he flew to Beijing to attend the Olympics.
In a speech outlining America's achievements and challenges in Asia, Bush pushed for a free press, free assembly and labor rights in China, and against its detentions of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. He said he wasn't trying to antagonize China, but called such reform the only path the potent U.S. rival can take to reach its full potential.
He antagonized the Chinese anyway, setting the stage for an interesting reception when he attends the opening ceremonies Friday evening, takes in some events - including the U.S.-China men's basketball game - and meets with President Hu Jintao on Sunday after attending church.
"The Chinese government puts people first, and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens basic rights and freedom," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in response to Bush's speech. "Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts."
He said China advocates discussions on differing views on human rights and religions on "a basis of mutual respect and equality," then indicated it didn't see Bush's criticism in that light.
"We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries' internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues," Qin said.
Bush did offer praise for China's market reforms. "Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions," he said. "Yet, change will arrive."
Bush has been trying to walk a tightrope in attending the games, wanting to avoid causing Beijing embarrassment during its two weeks on the world stage while also coming under pressure to use his visit to openly press China's leaders for greater religious tolerance and other freedoms. Chinese officials bristled when he met with Chinese activists at the White House last week.
"With this speech, Bush is trying to address two polar issues: easing the controversy created by those who oppose his visit during the Games and simultaneously maintaining America's strategy with China," said Yan Xuetong, an expert in U.S.-China relations at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University.
Making the repression issue timely, China has rounded up opponents ahead of the Olympics and slapped restrictions on journalists, betraying promises made when it landed the hosting rights.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged the international community "to speak with a strong and united voice" to maintain pressure on China over human rights. But he conceded Beijing's record has improved.
"Remember, it was not all that long ago they were in the middle of the cultural revolution with people getting put up against a wall and basically knocked off," he told Nine Network television before flying to Beijing.
The White House's handling of the speech demonstrated the president's balancing act. Bush's address containing the criticism of China was delivered outside the country, in Thailand. The White House took the unusual step of releasing the text of it even earlier, about 18 hours before he spoke.
And the speech was followed by a string of events Thursday, by both the president and his wife, Laura, that were clearly aimed at shifting the focus to the repressive military regime in Myanmar, neighbor to Thailand, where Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej regards himself as a friend of Myanmar's generals. Myanmar, also known as Burma, marks the 20th anniversary of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists on Friday.
The Bush administration has become increasingly vocal about Myanmar in recent months, blaming a corrupt regime for failing to help its citizens after a devastating cyclone in May, in large part by initially failing to accept international help and then only with tight restrictions, and for violently suppressing democracy demonstrations by Buddhist monks in last September's so-called Saffron Revolution.
Mrs. Bush, the administration's highest-profile spokeswoman on the issue, flew for the day to northwestern Thailand to visit a border refugee camp. The Mae La camp is home to 38,000 Karen, an ethnic minority that human rights organizations say is the target of an ongoing Myanmar military campaign marked by murders of civilians, rapes and razing of villages. She also stopped at a health clinic run by a woman known as the "Mother Teresa of Burma."
Remaining in Bangkok, the president was briefed at the U.S. ambassador's residence on recovery from the cyclone that devastated Myanmar's heartland and killed more than 80,000 people, had lunch with nine Burmese activists and did an interview with local radio journalists in hopes of influencing events across the border.
Bush called the activists "courageous people," saying he wanted to hear their stories and their advice.
One of the activists, Lway Aye Nang of the Women's League of Burma, said rape has long been used "as a weapon of war" in Myanmar and thanked Washington for imposing sanctions against her country.
"This is really hitting ... the regime and their associates, who have been defiling the country's natural resources for their own benefit and leaving ordinary citizens in extreme poverty," she said.
Bush's speech had been expected to prominently feature Myanmar. But it contained only a brief - though blunt - mention of the reclusive nation.
One of the world's poorest countries, Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, when the latest junta came to power after brutally crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.
"We will continue working until the people of Burma have the freedom they deserve," Bush said, calling for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners.
Bush also urged North Korea to live up to its promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons, adding: "The United States will continue to insist that the regime in Pyongyang end its harsh rule and respect the dignity and human rights of the North Korean people."
About 25 people around the convention center where Bush spoke welcomed him. But a Muslim group shouted "Bush, get out. God is great" as the presidential motorcade passed. The protesters handed out leaflets saying "George Bush is a war criminal."
Associated Press writers Ben Feller in Bangkok, Chi-Chi Zhang in Beijing and Ambika Ahuja in Tha Song Yang, Thailand, contributed to this story.