Bush Tells Chinese Dissidents He Will Push Beijing to Make Reforms

After talking with Chinese dissidents at the White House, President Bush flew to Cleveland and gave a speech about energy at Lincoln Electric.
After talking with Chinese dissidents at the White House, President Bush flew to Cleveland and gave a speech about energy at Lincoln Electric. (By Tony Dejak -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

EUCLID, Ohio, July 29 -- President Bush met privately with five Chinese activists at the White House on Tuesday before leaving on a trip to the Midwest, promising to "carry the message of freedom" to the Summer Olympics in Beijing next week.

Bush has repeatedly said he views the Beijing Games as being about athletics rather than politics, and he has resisted calls to boycott the opening ceremonies on Aug. 8. But last week, he referred to U.S. athletes as "ambassadors of liberty," and he told the group of dissidents Tuesday that he will continue to press China's leadership for reforms even during the Olympics, White House officials said.

"He told the activists that engagement with Chinese leaders gives him an opportunity to make the United States' position clear -- human rights and religious freedom should not be denied to anyone," White House press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement.

The unannounced meeting is likely to displease China's Communist leadership, which is focused on playing down complaints of human rights abuses preceding the Beijing Games. Bush is planning to meet with China's president, Hu Jintao, during his stay in Beijing, administration officials have said.

The activists with whom Bush met Tuesday were prison critic Harry Wu, democracy activist Wei Jinsheng, Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer, Bob Fu of the China Aid Association and writer Sasha Gong, the White House said. Bush asked the dissidents to recount their efforts to secure more freedoms in China, Perino said.

Fu said in an interview after the meeting that although he has "mixed feelings" about Bush's decision to attend the Games, his conversation with Bush makes him optimistic. "The president made very clear that he will continue to raise the issue of human rights while he attends the Olympics," Fu said. "It could have some real impact."

Bush also dropped in on a meeting between China's foreign minister and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. Bush told Yang Jiechi that hosting the Olympics "presents the Chinese with an opportunity to demonstrate compassion on human rights and freedom," the statement said. Hadley also will meet with human rights groups Wednesday to discuss the president's China trip.

Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called Bush's meeting with the Chinese activists "remarkable."

"It's as if he were goading the Chinese on the eve of his trip to Beijing," Mitchell said. "To Chinese eyes, those he met with were a rogues' gallery of China's leading troublemakers. . . . China cannot be happy with this meeting and the signal of reproach it represents."

At the same time, Mitchell added, the meeting allows Bush to attend the opening ceremonies while showing that "he remains committed to his human rights principles."

T. Kumar, Asia advocacy director for Amnesty International USA, said his group welcomed Tuesday's meeting but also urged Bush to call on China to release political prisoners before the start of the Games as a sign of good faith.

After his White House meeting, Bush flew here to suburban Cleveland for a visit to Lincoln Electric, a century-old firm specializing in advanced welding equipment. In a speech to several hundred company employees, Bush said it is up to Congress to approve an expansion of offshore oil drilling to reduce gasoline prices.

Lincoln has developed welding technology that can help keep offshore rigs from collapsing in storms, and it helps produce equipment for nuclear plants and wind turbines that can generate additional electricity, Bush said.

The increase in oil prices is not due to "the lack of energy," Bush said. "It's because there's law that prohibits us from finding that energy or getting that energy."

Although Bush's Ohio appearance focused on energy and the economy, he turned at the end to human rights, though he did not mention China or the Olympics.

Recounting an oft-told story about a visit to Bucharest, Romania, in 2002, Bush said: "If you believe in the universality of freedom like I do, then you shouldn't be surprised that when given a chance, people from all walks of life will do the hard work necessary to live in a free society."

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