U.S. in 'Firm Opposition' to Chinese Human Rights Policies, Bush Says

President Bush praised the spread of freedom in Asia while training a harsh spotlight Thursday on the region's democratic laggards, sharply criticizing oppression and human rights abuses in China, Myanmar and North Korea. Video by AP
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008

BANGKOK, Aug. 7 -- President Bush on Thursday used some of his bluntest language to date on human rights in China, saying in a speech here before he flew to Beijing for the Olympic Games' opening ceremony that "America stands in firm opposition" to China's detention of political dissidents and religious activists.

"We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential," Bush said. "And we press for openness and justice, not to impose our beliefs but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs."

Bush also said that "the United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings."

Many human rights groups have criticized the president for his decision to attend the Games and for what they call his unwillingness to confront Beijing over a crackdown on dissent and new Internet restrictions in the run-up to the Olympics.

The advocates have been pressing Bush to make a stronger statement while in Beijing about China's human rights practices or to meet with dissidents. Both scenarios appear unlikely. Bush has said he is going to the Olympics to cheer on U.S. athletes and to show his "respect" for the Chinese people.

Still, his comments, delivered in Thailand several hours before he left for Beijing, are sure to draw the notice of the Chinese government, which has already bristled over Bush's meeting with five Chinese human rights activists last week.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the president chose to make the comments as part of a larger assessment of U.S. relations with Asia.

"This speech puts together what the president has been saying for 7 1/2 years but does it in a very focused way," she said. Perino said China "is one of the most important relationships that we have in the United States, and the speech is being given on the eve of his trip there. So he thought it was appropriate to talk about it at this point."

Sophie Richardson, who monitors Asia for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail exchange that it is "absurd to try to sustain the claim that America's policies are principled while then effectively standing back and saying, 'We will watch from the sidelines while the Chinese do what they do.' " She said it is a "diplomatic travesty" for Bush not to meet with dissidents in Beijing or insist on a nationally broadcast speech on a free press or other issues.

Two days into his ninth trip to Asia, Bush divided his time Wednesday between South Korea and Thailand, two close U.S. allies in the region. He spent the first part of the day in Seoul, where he held meetings and ate a lunch of American beef filet and Korean short ribs with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has faced severe political problems after clearing the way for importing U.S. beef, which many South Koreans worry may carry mad cow disease.

A major focus of their talks was continuing efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The United States recently agreed to take North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism, as part of a deal in which the communist state would disable its main nuclear facility.

At a news conference with Lee, Bush said North Korea will not be removed from the list unless leader Kim Jong Il agrees to a plan to verify that it is disarming. Monday is the first day North Korea could be removed from the list, after a 45-day congressional review period expires, but Pyongyang has yet to come up with a plan acceptable to the United States and its allies, according to U.S. officials.

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