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Bush, Hu ready for another candid talk

Aug. 09, 2008, 8:07 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Juggling sports and strife, U.S. President George W. Bush set about tending to delicate relations with China's leaders as troubles kept dogging his whirlwind Olympic adventure.

Bush's meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday comes amid persistent criticism over how China treats its own people. The U.S. president promised again to prod Hu to let people speak and pray freely without harassment. China says that is a matter it can handle without outside meddling.

Sending a signal before the talks, Bush planned to attend services at a Protestant church and speak publicly on behalf of religious freedom. China allows worship only in officially approved churches such as the one on Bush's schedule, so millions of people gather privately to pray, avoiding detection.

Bush, who came to Beijing mainly to have fun at the Olympics, also now finds himself immersed in a conflict with China's neighbor to the north, Russia.

A grim and blunt president upbraided Moscow over its escalating standoff with a former Soviet state, Georgia. Bush questioned attacks in parts of Georgia away from South Ossetia, the breakaway province at the center of the fight.

"The violence is endangering regional peace," Bush said. He pushed Russia to embrace an international mediation effort by the United States and its European allies.

Bush's day in China juxtaposed moments light and somber, sometimes jarringly so.

He took a rigorous ride on the Olympic mountain biking course, had a try at beach volleyball and laughed it up with members of the U.S. women's softball team. The president enjoyed the sweat-soaked experience of hanging out with athletes in an unscripted way.

Later came the news that a Chinese man had stabbed the in-laws of the U.S. Olympic men's volleyball coach, killing one and injuring the other, and stabbed a tour guide, too. The assailant committed suicide by jumping from the tourist site the Americans were visiting.

Bush spoke on that topic and the rapidly changing events in Georgia. He warned of the seriousness of the military conflict and expressed sadness about the stabbing.

As scheduled, Bush then went back to rooting for his country's team. He took off the coat and tie and headed to the basketball arena to watch the U.S. women's team with his family.

More shifting between sports and diplomacy awaited Bush on Sunday.

After church, he planned to attend men's and women's swimming competitions. By afternoon, the schedule had him at the Zhongnanhai Compound, the central government complex, for meetings with Hu, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Among the expected topics of discussion were counterterrorism, trade, economic markets, individual freedoms, and efforts to halt the nuclear weapons capability of Iran and North Korea.

No major announcements were anticipated.

Bush and Hu met just one month ago, at the summit in Japan of the world's economic powers. Standing together, Bush told reporters at the time that he and Hu "have constantly had discussions about human rights and political freedom. He knows my position."

Just in case, Bush has kept on it through his weeklong Asia trip.

In Thailand, Bush said the U.S. firmly opposes China's crackdown on political dissidents and human rights activists. The speech angered China's government, which responded by telling Bush not to intrude in its affairs.

Bush was careful to say that change will occur in China on its terms.

The State Department says local authorities in China handle the unsanctioned Protestant "house churches" differently throughout the country. Some are not bothered. Others are targeted for abuse, with leaders harassed, detained and beat, the department says.

"Only China can decide what course it will follow, but I'm optimistic about the prospects," Bush said in his radio address Saturday, taped in Beijing. "Young people who grow up with freedom in one area of their lives will ultimately demand freedom in other areas."

When Bush's diplomatic meetings conclude Sunday, it's back to the basketball arena to see the men's game between the United States and China.