Bush calls for freedom of speech in China

Aug. 08, 2008, 3:29 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) U.S. President George W. Bush took another swipe at China's human rights record Friday in the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing, then put politics on hold for a while, switching to fan mode for the Olympics' gala opening ceremonies.

Despite blunt language from both sides over the past week - with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world's biggest sporting stage - U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

"We've had these back-and-forths with China for years," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

Bush prodded the communist country to lessen repression and "let people say what they think." China, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, contrary to Beijing's commitments when it won the hosting rights for the games.

"We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful," Bush said at the dedication ceremony for a massive new US$434 million U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater freedoms for the Chinese people. Beijing responded that Bush shouldn't be meddling in its internal affairs, and defended its human rights record.

But Bush also praised China's contributions to society and embraced its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

"Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust," Bush said. "I've worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust."

Bush said the vast American diplomatic complex - the second-largest in the world, after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad - is symbolic of China's importance to the United States.

"It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations," Bush said. "It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come."

The number eight is considered auspicious in China - Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar - so the U.S. embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. Friday's Olympic opening ceremonies were to begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony, with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted efforts to cut its pollution, was full of emotional resonance. Also attending were Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was U.S. secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since then. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms, and the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over - though most of the work has ground to a halt ahead of the Olympics to help the anti-pollution battle.

Bush said that the last time he was in China, he had the opportunity to break in a mountain biking course. He joked that he contemplated entering Olympic bike events, but that wife Laura reminded him, "They don't give any medals for last place."

Bush was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies for a pep talk as the first American president to ever attend an Olympics on foreign soil.

"I'm looking forward to cheering our athletes on," Bush said. "I'm not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship."

Bush had lunch with other world leaders Friday, where he was seen chatting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Saturday, Bush meets with Olympic sponsors and watches women's basketball. He and family members 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 again Sunday afternoon. Bush will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao 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.