By Peter Baker and Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 20, 2005
BEIJING, Nov. 20 -- President Bush challenged China's repression of religion Sunday as he opened a diplomatically sensitive visit here, but he kept most of his focus on an economic and security agenda that included a multibillion-dollar sale of U.S.-built airplanes.
In his first public appearance, even before the welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, Bush attended a service at a state-sanctioned Protestant church to send a message about free expression of faith in a country that harshly smothers it. The president has been offended by the recent harassment of religious people trying to practice their faith without state approval at underground churches, aides said.
"My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly," the president told reporters outside Gangwashi Church, a modest brick building and one of a handful of official Protestant churches in Beijing. "A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths."
Bush later made a similar appeal during a joint appearance with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall. "It's important that social, political and religious freedoms grow in China and we encourage China to continue making their historic transition to greater freedom," the president said. Hu insisted that China has steadily expanded freedom. "Notable and historic progress has been made in China's development of a democratic political system and human rights," he told Bush.
In making his appeal for greater religious freedom, Bush was careful to avoid provocative language and planned to spend the rest of his visit talking about trade and nuclear nonproliferation issues. As the president flew to Beijing on Saturday night, a top White House official aboard Air Force One disclosed that China planned to sign a deal Sunday to purchase 70 jetliners from Boeing Corp., a sale he called vindication of the administration's nuanced approach to relations with China.
To establish the friendly tone of the visit here, the third of Bush's presidency, the White House arranged for Bush to go mountain biking Sunday with China's Olympic athletes, an event that aides said they assumed would be widely shown on state television and become the defining image of the trip. The idea, they said, was to signal directly to the Chinese people that no matter what they hear from their government, Bush is not hostile toward their country.
The multifaceted strategy for the trip reflected Bush's sometimes competing priorities in dealing with the emerging economic and political power. While he used a speech in Japan at the beginning of his week-long Asia trip to politely prod China to embrace more freedom and democracy, highlighting Taiwan as a model, he played down such talk upon arriving here, never mentioning those themes in his weekly U.S. radio address Saturday.
Michael J. Green, the president's top National Security Council adviser on Asia, said the "top of the list" of priorities for Bush in his meetings with Hu was to coordinate pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Bush and Hu also discussed the trade deficit, widespread Chinese piracy of American movies and software and what the administration considers an undervalued Chinese currency that keeps Chinese exports artificially cheap, with Hu promising unspecified action on all three fronts.
As the U.S. trade deficit with China continues to rise dramatically, approaching $200 billion this year, the Boeing 737 deal, worth between $3 billion and $4 billion, could give Bush some political relief. "It's a very important thing, and I think it's a testament to how our approach to China is yielding real results," said Green, who confirmed the pending sale.
But the juggling act underlying the approach to China has drawn criticism. "We are concerned that the human rights situation has fallen on the list of priorities in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship in recent years," Human Rights Watch told Bush in an open letter last week. "The human rights situation in China continues to be dire and, in many respects, has worsened in recent months, with crackdowns on dissidents, human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists."
Bush aides have said privately that they have seen backsliding by China on human rights in the last six months. During a meeting at the United Nations in September, Bush gave Hu a list of political prisoners he was concerned about, including a researcher for the New York Times. Aides had expressed hope that some of the detainees would be freed before Bush arrived Sunday, but none was.
On the contrary, administration officials said, they were disturbed that in the days before Bush's arrival, Beijing would sentence an underground Protestant pastor to three years in prison for distributing illegal Bibles and shut down the law firm of an attorney associated with the banned Falun Gong sect. "The president's not going to be afraid to raise these issues," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. "I don't think they like it."
Bush was not the first American president to attend church services here -- his father, George H.W. Bush, went in 1989 and Bill Clinton went in 1998 -- but he made a more overt statement on behalf of religious liberty. More than twice as many Chinese Christians worship in underground churches as state-approved churches. White House aides decided Bush had to use one permitted by the government to avoid causing anyone trouble.
Since rising to power in late 2002, Hu has presided over a crackdown on the media, religion and other elements of civil society, as well as a host of arrests. The party has also sought to shut down citizen groups devoted to rule of law, the environment and other causes in a campaign to prevent what officials call a "color revolution," referring to democratic upheavals in former Soviet states they argue were brought about by U.S.-funded groups.
China's security services routinely step up surveillance and harassment of political dissidents, religious figures and others deemed a threat to social stability during visits by foreign dignitaries, and Bush's trip was no exception. Among those ordered out of the capital in recent days was Zhang Xingshui, the lead attorney representing Cai Zhuohua, a pastor imprisoned for printing and distributing banned Bibles.
Bob Fu, president of the China Aid Association, a Christian rights organization based in Midland, Tex., also reported the detention of the evangelist Zhang Mingxuan in Beijing Friday. And another rights group reported the detention of an underground Catholic priest and four seminarians last weekend in Hebei province. The U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation said a well-known underground Hebei bishop, Julius Jia Zhiguo, was also detained.
The Chinese government is determined not to let such incidents shadow Bush's visit, which it interprets as a welcome sign of its expanding power. Avoiding disputes with the United States has become a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy as Hu's government concentrates on economic development.
Chinese commentators see Bush's visit as an indication that he no longer views China as an adversary and accepts Beijing's growing influence in Asia. The government's main organ, the China News Agency, said: "The new age of Sino-U.S. interaction has arrived."
Correspondent Edward Cody contributed to this report.