- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 9, 2008

From combined dispatches

BEIJING | President Bush blended a political message for the Chinese government with high-fives and hugs for American athletes Friday in dedicating an embassy and attending the elaborate opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.

Mr. Bush was among 80 leaders and royals who attended the opening ceremonies in Beijing’s head-turning, metal-latticed Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium.

The 3 1/2-hour pageant was the largest and costliest in Olympic history and reflected the epic significance that many of China’s 1.3 billion people ascribe to Beijing’s hosting of the event.

Nearly 100,000 spectators, athletes, officials, media members and VIPs were present, and an estimated TV and Internet audience of 4 billion people around the world viewed the extravaganza, which featured a pyrotechnic display of some 30,000 fireworks and a cast of 15,000 depicting China’s 5,000-year history and celebrating the world’s Olympic gathering.

To the beat of sparkling explosions, the crowd counted down the final seconds before the show began. A sea of drummers &#8212 2,008 in all &#8212 pounded out rhythms with their hands, then acrobats on wires gently wafted down into the stadium as rockets shot up into the night sky from its rim.

A record 204 national teams paraded into the stadium, including the nearly 600-member U.S. team, which received warm and loud applause. The largest ovation came, of course, for the 639-member team from China &#8212 the largest and strongest team the country has ever fielded &#8212 led by NBA superstar Yao Ming with a 9-year-old boy who survived the powerful earthquake in Sichuan province in May that killed at least 70,000 people.

Photo gallery:Epic ceremonies open Olympics

The games carry a $43 billion price tag, dwarfing the $15 billion spent by Athens in 2004. The opening and closing ceremonies alone are expected to cost $100 million.

The show’s script steered clear of modern politics - there were no references to Chairman Mao Zedong and the class struggle, nor to more recent conflicts and controversies, which officials have tried to avoid in the weeks leading up to the games.

China clearly was unhappy with a speech Mr. Bush delivered in Bangkok on Thursday, the day he arrived in Beijing, in which he called on the Chinese government to provide greater freedom to its people.

And despite criticism by China for meddling in its internal affairs, the president began his day at the new U.S. Embassy reiterating his point that freedom of speech was the best way to promote prosperity and peace.

“We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose,” he said at the dedication of the 10-acre ultramodern complex.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Mr. Bush said. “Candor is most effective when nations have built a relationship of respect and trust. 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.”

Chinese dignitaries at the dedication sat expressionless as Mr. Bush spoke.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded to the remarks by saying his government “firmly oppose* any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”

But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a rift from the exchange.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

Mr. Bush in his remarks at the embassy Friday also went to lengths to emphasize areas of agreement between the two countries, such as working to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons and Beijing’s move toward a more open and free economy. He noted that the new embassy reflected the “solid foundation underpinning our relations.”

“It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come,” he said.

The $434 million U.S. Embassy is the second-largest one in the world, only after its heavily fortified compound in Baghdad.

Mr. Bush also used an Olympic luncheon hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao to discuss with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin an unfolding crisis in the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Russia sent columns of tanks and reportedly bombed Georgian air bases Friday after Georgia launched a major military offensive to retake the province.

The fast-changing hostilities threaten to ignite a broader conflict in the region.

For the most part, Mr. Bush kept his eye on the games - the primary reason for his visit. He visited with members of the U.S. team, posing for photos with the athletes, who wore blue blazers, white slacks and white caps before the opening ceremony.

“It’s got to be really exciting, thinking about marching in that stadium and representing our country,” said Mr. Bush, the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil.

The president was accompanied by his wife, first lady Laura Bush, and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who once headed the U.S. liaison office in Beijing and serves as the U.S. team’s honorary captain.

The president’s public schedule over the next three days is thin. There are large gaps for him to pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watches women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Mr. Hu as well as China’s vice president and prime minister. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

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