- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

BEIJING | The Chinese welcomed President Bush to the Olympic Games on Friday by declaring their commitment to “citizens’ basic rights and freedom” and then keeping the White House press corps waiting on the runway at Beijing’s international airport for three hours before letting journalists off the plane.

Mr. Bush arrived in Beijing on Thursday after drawing China’s ire by challenging its crackdown on human rights in a speech delivered earlier in the day in Bangkok, and the Chinese government used virtually the same language to describe what it considers Mr. Bush’s intrusions.

“We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang. He said that the Chinese government is dedicated to promoting basic rights and that “Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts.”

Mr. Bush’s arrival in Beijing on the eve of the Opening Ceremonies comes amid an atmosphere of familiar tension after the president, who has maintained his Olympic visit is about sport not politics, criticized the Chinese government over human rights abuses.

China issued a curt rebuttal that no one should interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. Then came the episode with the press plane.

The Northwest Airlines 747 plane with the White House press corps landed at 2:10 a.m. local time, but passengers, numbering around 40 journalists, were not able to get off the plane until shortly after 5 a.m. White House officials would say only that there were “logistical problems” getting clearance to unload the aircraft.

Typically, the White House press charter receives the “custom of the port,” meaning reporters, photographers and camera crews are able to get off the plane right after landing, board buses and head to their hotels and work areas while U.S. officials process immigration and customs details.

Later, as Mr. Bush dedicated a massive new $434 million U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the appearance of political one-upmanship began to recede — if ever so slightly.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” the president said.

Mr. Bush’s remarks weren’t quite as blunt as his earlier criticism of China’s human rights record during the earlier stop in Thailand.

While dedicating the embassy, he also praised efforts by China to help negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.

Politics, at least peripherally, have always been part of the Olympics. But the rhetorical barbs were expected to fade as the games began.

“The Olympic torch will light the home of an ancient civilization with a grand history,” Mr. Bush said at the embassy. “Thousands of years ago, the Chinese people developed a common language and unified a great nation. China became the center for art and literature and commerce and philosophy. China advanced the frontiers of knowledge in medicine, astronomy, navigation, engineering and many other fields.”

Hassles with the press plane have happened before, but no one on the plane was able to recall one this long.

Passengers were made to pass through Chinese immigration control individually.

Many of those on the plane — roughly 40 journalists — were due to cover the opening of the new U.S. Embassy complex in Beijing.

In addition to opening the embassy, Mr. Bush in four days in Beijing is scheduled to confer with Chinese President Hu Jintao, meet with other Chinese leaders and call for greater religious freedom.

Mr. Bush and other foreign leaders at the games were scheduled to meet at a social lunch hosted by Mr. Hu on Friday. Mr. Bush will meet with the president of the International Olympic Committee later in the day, and then members of the U.S. Olympic team for a presidential pep talk before the opening ceremony.

Mr. Bush on Saturday will meet with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. He and family members with him likely will 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 watch men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Also Sunday, Mr. Bush will meet with Mr. Hu at his presidential compound, and then hold sessions with China’s vice president and prime minister before attending 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.

Mr. Bush’s presence is a precedent. He will be the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil when he attends Friday’s opening ceremony.

“The reason I’m going to the Olympics is twofold: one, to show my respect for the people of China; and two, to cheer on the U.S. team,” Mr. Bush said this week. Then he thought about that for a second and reversed the order, saying pride in U.S. teams is his top motivation.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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