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.
"We'll see," Bush told reporters. "It's his choice to make as to whether or not he comes off the list."
After a quick trip to rally with troops at the U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan, Bush flew to Thailand, where he held talks Wednesday evening with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Bush is also planning to highlight the cause of Burmese freedom on this trip; he meets with Burmese dissidents on Thursday.
Laura Bush toured the Mae La refugee camp Thursday morning on the Thai-Burmese border, where she called on Burmese strongman Tan Shwe to begin "dialogues" with opposition figures.
Even some of President Bush's critics regard U.S. policies on Asia as a relative bright spot in his foreign policy legacy: Bush and his aides have spent much time cultivating better relationships with Japan and India while engaging China on trade, currency exchange rates and security concerns such as North Korea. Polls suggest that the U.S. standing in Asia is higher than in the rest of the world.
"The administration has improved relations with China and strengthened the alliance with Japan at the same time, which is kind of gravity-defying," said Michael Green, a former Bush aide who follows Asian affairs for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
A considerable part of the speech was devoted to China, which Bush said he has found fascinating since first visiting his father there in 1975, when George H.W. Bush was serving as the top U.S. diplomat in Beijing.
"We are making it clear to China that being a global economic leader carries with it the duty to act responsibly on matters from energy to the environment to development in Africa," Bush said.
Bush also took credit for a calming of tensions in the Taiwan Strait, after pressing both Beijing and Taipei not to disturb the status quo -- meaning no Chinese military attack and no declaration of independence by Taiwan. Bush's policy has disturbed many of Taiwan's U.S. allies, who have complained that a de facto U.S. arms freeze is hindering Taiwan's efforts to cope with a resurgent Chinese military.
Bush said a "constructive relationship" on such issues has placed "America in a better position to be honest and direct on other issues," including human rights and religious freedom. "Ultimately, only China can decide what course it will follow," he said. "It will be clear for all to see that those who aspire to speak their conscience and worship their god are no threat to the future of China."