- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

President Bush’s actions and words in the past week promoting religious and political freedom inside China have angered the communist government, increasing tensions for his visit to China this week for the 29th Summer Olympics.

Mr. Bush leaves Washington on Monday for his ninth presidential trip to Asia, a weeklong visit that he had hoped could be built around a simple celebration of sport and national pride, free of geopolitical tension.

Before he even gets to China, Mr. Bush will make stops in South Korea and Thailand that bring their own diplomatic challenges.

But the president’s thorniest task will be handling China, which reacted with fury to his Tuesday meeting with several Chinese dissidents, including Harry Wu and Wei Jingsheng, who tried to persuade him not to go.

In a statement after the meeting, Mr. Bush said he will “carry the message of freedom as he travels to Beijing for the games, just as he has regularly made this a priority in all of his meetings with Chinese officials.”

Starting Friday, Mr. Bush will spend four days in Beijing attending the Olympics’ opening ceremony and several events, including a men’s basketball game between the U.S. and China. The visit will be the first by an American president to an Olympics outside the U.S.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Wei said he told the president that going to the Olympics “is a mistake” and urged him to cancel the visit. “Regardless [of] how you explain it, the Chinese government would say that it supports the communist dictatorial government,” Mr. Wei said.

Mr. Wei said Mr. Bush responded that he sees the Olympics merely as a sporting event, echoing words that the president has said publicly.

“I’m coming as a sportsman,” he said in an interview with a Chinese journalist. He said in a separate session with a group of Asian journalists that the American “objective is to get more medals than anybody.”

But Mr. Bush also will spend part of his time pushing for human rights, including greater religious and political freedom in China, though he insists he is not traveling to Beijing to politicize the Olympics. As he did the last time he visited China, the two-term president will go to church Sunday morning, though it will be an officially sanctioned state church, and then make a statement about religious freedom afterward to reporters.

Bob Fu, president of the Christian group China Aid and one of the five dissidents with whom Mr. Bush met Tuesday, said he asked the president to attend a nongovernmental “house” church.

Mr. Fu said the president replied that during an earlier visit he asked the Chinese government about visiting such a church and was told Beijing could not find any. Mr. Fu said he then handed the president a list of house churches with addresses and directions and told him those religious believers “are willing and welcoming him to worship with him.”

China’s underground or nonofficial churches include between 55 million and 90 million adherents who often face severe persecution from communist authorities.

Mr. Bush will attend a church that trains pastors of underground Christian churches.

“The church operates as a learning center for many of these house church pastors. And so the president is eager to go and hear about their efforts to work with those other pastors,” Dennis Wilder, the president’s top Asia adviser at the National Security Council, said in a briefing with reporters at the White House last week.

Mr. Wilder added that Christian house churches are not allowed to register with the government. “We would … very much like to see the government register these churches so that they aren’t living, as it were, on the fringe of Chinese law,” he said.

Mr. Bush said in 2005 that the Chinese government should not “fear Christians who gather to worship openly,” and that “a healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths.”

Mr. Fu said that while his group could not persuade Mr. Bush not to go to the Olympics, he nevertheless was pleased that the meeting took place.

“President Bush’s willingness to meet with me and other rights activists despite the sensitivity and complexity of Sino-U.S. relations is a clear showing of his commitment for basic rights and religious freedom within China,” Mr. Fu said. “I do hope the president can use this opportunity to bring the message of freedom directly to the Chinese people and the faithful during his visit to Beijing.”

In reaction Friday, Liu Jianchao, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said: “By arranging such a meeting between its leader and these people and making irresponsible remarks on China’s human rights and its religious situation, the U.S. side has rudely interfered in China’s internal affairs and sent a seriously wrong message to hostile anti-China forces.”

Mr. Liu also had sharp words for Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, who said last week that the Chinese were preparing to spy on foreign athletes, politicians, journalists and other visitors who come to Beijing for the Olympics.

China’s security forces have installed an astonishing 300,000 security cameras in and around their capital city, a level of surveillance that is surpassed likely only by that of London, where the government has a vast system of about 500,000 cameras.

“We urge relevant U.S. politicians to discard prejudice, stop slandering and refrain from activities that sabotage the Beijing Olympic Games and undermine China-U.S. relations,” Mr. Liu said. “In China, individual privacy is protected according to the law and there is no need for foreign tourists to worry about.”

White House press secretary Dana Perino dismissed Mr. Liu’s criticisms, saying the Bush administration is “less concerned with their public comments than we are with actions on the ground in China.”

“We would like to see an improvement in human rights, freedom and democracy in that country,” Mrs. Perino said. “Admittedly, any signs of progress are very slow.”

Michael Green, a former top adviser to Mr. Bush on Asian affairs who worked at the White House from 2001 to 2005, said Mr. Bush’s meeting with the five dissidents was “unprecedented and unusual,” since the five activists are viewed as a “rogue’s gallery” in China.

Still, he said, “I don’t think this is going to spoil the trip or the president’s meetings with [Chinese President] Hu Jintao.”

The middle leg of the president’s Asia trip will be to Thailand, where he will deliver a speech Thursday to look back on his Asia policies over the past eight years.

But he and first lady Laura Bush also will use their time in Thailand to draw international attention to the cause of dissidents in neighboring Burma, where a military junta continues to squash dissent and persecute ethnic minorities.

Mrs. Bush will visit a refugee camp and a health clinic for refugees along Thailand’s western border with Burma, while Mr. Bush will speak to Thai TV journalists that will broadcast his message into Burma.

In Seoul, Mr. Bush will meet Wednesday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who took office in February but has since plummeted in opinion polls largely because of the public impression that he is moving too quickly to implement reforms.

In particular, Mr. Lee’s April decision to drop a ban on U.S. beef imports prompted widespread public outrage over health concerns, forcing him to limit the age of the U.S. beef that can enter the country. More than 2.8 million pounds of U.S. beef have been shipped to South Korea in the past two weeks, but none of it has passed through inspection, according to Reuters.

Mr. Bush originally planned to visit Seoul before or after his visit to Japan for the Group of Eight summit in early July, but postponed the trip because of the strong Korean anger over the beef issue.

North Korea’s lack of progress in verifying its pledge to dismantle its nuclear weapons program also will be a major issue for Mr. Bush when he is in Seoul and Beijing.

Mr. Bush pledged in June to remove Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, conditional upon North Korea’s verification of its denuclearization. His main leverage for getting North Korea to deliver on its promise is through the six-party talks, which also include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

But Robert Einhorn, former assistant secretary of state for proliferation, warned that “the process is a very fragile one and time is running out on the Bush administration.”

“The risk of this process going off the rails is quite significant,” he said.

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