- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

BEIJING | President Bush ended what is probably his final trip to East Asia as president Monday, a diplomatic tightrope walk in Beijing that many analysts consider a public-relations triumph for the Chinese government.

During his four-day trip to the Olympics-engrossed Chinese capital, Mr. Bush gently prodded China about human rights and religious freedom.

But he confined his most overt criticism to a speech in Thailand before his arrival and to private talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao - in line with a pledge not to offend the Chinese people.

“China has walked away from the meeting triumphant, having had a visit from the leader of the world´s most powerful nation for the Olympics,” said Huang Yanzhong, an associate professor with the New Jersey-based Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

Mr. Bush is the first sitting American president to attend the Olympic Games on foreign soil.

“This will give China a lot of confidence. It was very important for China that Bush attended the games. It acknowledges China´s rise to the status of a great power,” said Mr. Huang, currently a visiting senior fellow at the East Asian Institute in Singapore.

While Mr. Bush´s presence at the Olympics opening ceremonies, along with a host of international leaders, made China appear “grandiose,” the U.S. also succeeded in meeting its chief target, namely to reaffirm its political clout in East Asia, said Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Beijing´s Tsinghua University.

“Each side got what they wanted. Bush has managed to maintain U.S. domination in the region and has prevented China from pushing ahead with regionalization,” he said.

But Mr. Bush´s diplomatic maneuverings are unlikely to satisfy those who think the U.S. president should push China harder on human rights.

“It is essential that you unambiguously speak out for human rights and meet with the families of jailed prisoners of conscience while you are in Beijing,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a letter to the president before he left Washington.

Mr. Bush instead chose Bangkok as the setting to express his “deep concerns” over China´s human rights record in an obvious attempt to soften the jab. It provoked the standard response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry: Stop interfering in our internal affairs.

Shortly before his departure from Beijing, Mr. Bush described his visit to the Olympics as “a very uplifting experience” in an interview with the Associated Press.

Alluding to the fact that he kept most of the tough talking with Mr. Hu behind closed doors, he said: “It’s good to send a signal to the Chinese people that we respect them, that this is about their country.”

Mr. Huang argues that Mr. Bush was not in a position to start ramping up the pressure on China even if he had wanted to, given he only has a few months left in the White House.

Mr. Bush has come under fire from rights groups for attending a service at a state-sanctioned church on Sunday, a move they say silently condones Communist Party control over religion.

Bob Fu, founder of China Aid Association, a Christian rights group based in Texas, said he feared that by visiting a government-approved church for the second time - the first visit was in 2005 - Mr. Bush was “further legitimizing the oppressive religious policy of the Chinese government.”

“That´s why when I met him in the White House on July 29, I gave him four addresses of house churches that had invited him to attend a service,” Mr. Fu said.

“I understand the Chinese government refused his request to attend a house church but at least he could have forcefully emphasized his desire to go, and his displeasure at his request not being granted, in a public speech.”

Mr. Bush used his visit to Beijing Kuanjie Protestant Christian Church to make a pointed call for greater religious freedom in China, saying afterward: “No state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion.”

Hours later it emerged that a member of Beijing´s underground Christian church, Hua Huiqi, was detained by security officials while cycling to Kuanjie Church for the service.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said he could not confirm the detention but added, “We´re disappointed any time that someone is unable to worship freely.”

In an interview with NBC on Monday, Mr. Bush defended his decision.

“I went to church here, and I´m sure the cynics say, well, just a state-sponsored church. On the other hand, and that´s true, but it gave me a chance to say to the Chinese people, religion won´t hurt, you ought to welcome religious people and why don´t you register the underground churches and give them a chance,” he said.

Mr. Huang thinks Mr. Bush´s decision to pressure China on human rights “in a strategic manner,” while being effusive in his support of the Beijing Olympics, could pay off in the long run.

“A more confident China is no bad thing. A more confident China will be a more tolerant and accommodating China.”

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