Bush Says It's 'Important to Engage' China

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE, Aug. 4 -- Three days before he is set to arrive in Beijing for the Olympics, President Bush offered a mixed assessment of China's role in the world, praising its efforts to curb the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, expressing disappointment about its recent move to help scuttle global trade talks, and saying that it is "really hard to tell" whether human rights in China have improved over the past eight years.

Bush said that he speaks candidly with Chinese President Hu Jintao about human rights, particularly religious freedom, and that he has shared his religious beliefs with Hu and Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, urging them to lift restrictions on underground churches.

"My main objective in my discussions on religious freedom is to remind this new generation of leadership that religion is not to be feared but to be welcomed in society," Bush said in an interview. Asked whether he thinks he is making an impact on Hu, he replied: "Oh, I think he listens, absolutely. I think he's interested. . . . He absorbs, he takes in, he listens."

Bush said China must do more to pressure repressive governments in Burma and Sudan, where he suggested Beijing's interest in acquiring raw materials to fuel China's booming economy is conflicting with an interest in stopping the killing in Sudan's Darfur region. But he skirted a question about a pre-Olympics security drive by Chinese authorities that human rights advocates call a crackdown on dissent.

"They're hypersensitive to a potential terrorist attack," Bush said. "And my hope is, of course, that as they have their security in place, that they're mindful of the spirit of the Games, and that if there is a provocation, they handle it in a responsible way without violence."

The president has been criticized by some lawmakers and human rights groups for his decision to attend the Games. He explained his rationale: "One of the reasons I'm going is because I want to show respect to the Chinese people, and this is a proud moment for China."

Bush also grappled with how to gauge openness and freedom in China today. "I mean, this is a closed society in many ways," he said. "The Internet provides interesting opportunities for people to express themselves. Sometimes it's open, sometimes the filters are there. I've talked to the evangelicals who go there who feel like the underground church movement has gotten a few steps forward, a step-and-a-half back. It's really hard to tell."

During a half-hour interview in his private office aboard Air Force One, Bush emphasized that it is "important to engage the Chinese" -- a striking comment for a president who came to office with aides depicting China as a "strategic competitor" and surrounded by hawks who looked suspiciously upon the Chinese government. Even critics of the president say he has emerged as an unexpected diplomat with China, conducting a personal campaign to woo the senior Chinese leadership.

The president was on his way to Alaska for a brief rally with troops before flying to Seoul for the first stop of a seven-day trip to Asia, culminating this weekend with an appearance at the opening ceremonies in Beijing, attendance at athletic events, worship at a Chinese church, and meetings with Hu and other officials.

Bush's planned meeting with Hu at the Olympics this month will be his 15th meeting with a Chinese president. His visit to China will be the fourth of his presidency; no other U.S. president has visited China more than once.

Over the course of his administration, Bush has delivered for China in important and unexpected ways: A president who in his early days made a guarantee to defend Taiwan later warned the island against declaring independence and has established what China experts see as a de facto freeze on arms sales to Taiwan. After angering China by labeling North Korea part of an "axis of evil," Bush led a diplomatic initiative aimed at cooling tensions on the Korean Peninsula. While critical of China on human rights, Bush has not hectored authorities in Beijing. authorities.

He and his advisers say his approach has paid off: The United States has secured Chinese help on North Korea and Iran while avoiding a blowup in the Taiwan Strait, despite the intense passions and military buildups on both sides.

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