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Bush, Chinese leader exchange warm greeting

Aug. 08, 2008, 1:14 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Speaking on China's turf the very day it hosted the opening of the Olympic Games, President Bush on Friday prodded the communist country to lessen repression and "let people say what they think."

The president's challenge, issued as he dedicated a massive new U.S. embassy in Beijing, capped a volley of sharp exchanges between the two nations this week about China's human rights record.

But Bush also offered balance, praising China's contributions to society and embracing its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

"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 official opening of the $434 million U.S. embassy.

"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."

Bush came to Beijing mainly to watch U.S. athletes compete and enjoy the spectacle of the summer games, but a round of political one-upmanship has heavily defined his trip to Asia. He bluntly criticized China's human rights record in a speech in Thailand, which prompted China to warn the U.S. president to stop meddling in its business.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang admonished Bush just before he got to China.

"We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues," he said. The spokesman added that "Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts."

The rhetorical barbs were expected to recede quickly as the games began. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she did not think they would overshadow Bush's trip at all.

"We've had these back-and-forths with China for years," she said. The White House says its cooperation with China on security and economic matters should not be overlooked.

Indeed, Bush and his wife were front-and-center with Chinese President Hu Jintao and his wife as they led more than 80 world leaders up red-carpeted stairs to a banquet hall in the Great Hall of the People where the group had lunch at huge round tables. The two leaders shook hands, exchanged warm greetings and posed for photographs.

Later Friday, Bush meets with members of the U.S. Olympic Team for a presidential pep talk. At night comes the elaborate opening ceremony.

The new American embassy in Beijing, situated on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass. Bush got a look at it on Friday as the pollution over the city cast a white haze in all directions.

The dedication followed China's unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. The 250,000-square-foot glass and limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The president attended the dedication of the embassy with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who in the 1970s served as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China.

Also in attendance was Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

The former president reminisced about his days in the city, then called Peking, when a young George W. Bush rode a bicycle around the city.

The current president said 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 his wife, first lady Laura Bush, reminded him that "they don't give any medals for last place."

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 the opening ceremony.

"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."

The U.S. trip to China 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.

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 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.