Rights Issue Looms as Bush Heads to China

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008

With President Bush set to leave next week for the Olympics in Beijing, the White House is coming under increased pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups to make a public statement of concern about the crackdown on human rights and freedom in China.

White House aides said it is likely that Bush, who has focused considerable attention to the cause of Chinese religious freedom, will worship at a church in Beijing during his trip, but they say the rest of his schedule remains in flux. What the president will do or say in Beijing is the subject of considerable debate within the administration, several officials said, but they expressed doubt that Bush would do much to embarrass the Chinese leadership during an event it considers something of a coming-out party for China as a world power.

Bush has repeatedly made clear his view that he is going to China as a sports fan and does not see the Olympics as a good opportunity to make political points. He is likely to spend much of his four days in Beijing attending various sporting events -- as well as the opening ceremonies Aug. 8 -- although he plans to meet with President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders, according to White House officials.

Aides have hinted that there could be some other symbolic gestures in Beijing. Bush cryptically told a small group of Chinese dissidents at the White House last month that he will have a "message" for the Chinese leadership when he goes to the Olympics, according to Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, who was present.

"The president has met with dissidents regularly over the last seven years, and I expect that he will continue to do so, but the schedule hasn't been set yet for the trip," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

But with Chinese authorities in the midst of a drive to stifle public dissent in advance of the Games -- in the name of security -- Bush is also being urged to demonstrate his concern beyond the quiet diplomacy he says he practices with the senior Chinese leadership.

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley has agreed to meet this week with the leaders of the major human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to hear their ideas and concerns, according to members of those groups.

"That itself is a positive sign," said T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA. Kumar said the human rights situation in China "has worsened because of the Olympics and the administration has not been forceful in addressing the situation."

Already, the White House is being bombarded with suggestions for Bush's trip, which will also include stops in South Korea and Thailand.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a top human rights advocate in Congress, is urging Bush to emulate President Ronald Reagan, who made a major public address about religious freedom and human rights when he visited the Soviet Union in 1988.

Advocacy groups have proposed that Bush meet with dissidents or the mothers of the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or press the Chinese to curb military cooperation with the Sudanese government, a source of frustration for human rights advocates concerned about the killings in Sudan's Darfur region.

A resolution is likely to come to the House floor this week calling on Bush to make a statement of some kind on human rights in China before and after his trip to Beijing, to meet with the families of jailed prisoners of conscience and to seek to visit Tibet.

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