BEIJING : US President George W. Bush arrived in Beijing on Thursday to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games after raising fresh concerns about China’s attitude towards human rights.
The US leader, who has insisted that he does not want to politicise the Olympics, flew into the Chinese capital from Thailand, where he made a robust speech questioning China’s commitment to religious and other freedoms.
“The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” Bush said.
“America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists.
“We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labour rights – not to antagonise China’s leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential.”
Critics had called on Bush to boycott Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony because of China’s record on human rights, which has been in the international spotlight in the run-up to the August 8-24 Games.
Bush however expressed optimism about the future of the world’s most populous nation.
The United States had already protested China’s treatment of international activists who are pressing Beijing to exert its influence over Sudan to end the conflict in Darfur.
US Winter Olympic speed-skating champion Joey Cheek, a prominent member of the Team Darfur activist group, saw his Chinese visa allowing him to attend the Games cancelled.
China responded to Bush’s criticism, saying it opposed any interference in its internal affairs, but the reaction was less strident than China’s usual reaction to complaints about its human rights record.
“The Chinese people enjoy religious freedom according to law. That’s a basic fact evident to all,” said foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang in a statement.
The statement also emphasised the common interests shared by the two nations and struck a conciliatory tone.
“We are willing to constantly strengthen our dialogue and cooperation with the United States in order to properly handle differences and sensitive issues,” it said.
Bush has defended his decision to attend the Games, saying during a stop in Seoul that he would cheer US athletes while paying his respects to China.
In his speech, Bush also praised China’s economic growth, saying the country presented an enormous market for the world’s exports.
The president said China’s economic growth would fuel change in the country, and he noted the United States and China were cooperating on important issues such as the denuclearisation of North Korea.
As Beijing prepares to showcase its rising global influence with the Olympics, Bush said Washington was pressing China to assume greater responsibility in world affairs.
Bush, an avid sports fan, has made no secret of his excitement in becoming the first sitting US president to attend an Olympic Games outside the United States and, while he will likely address sensitive issues with Chinese President Hu Jintao, he will do so in private.
Bush will attend the opening ceremony at the “Bird’s Nest” stadium, but his visit is intended to be a relaxed family affair as his father, sister, one of his daughters and a brother will also be in the Chinese capital.
He is due to watch the United States play China in the men’s basketball on Sunday, as well as attend a friendly baseball game between the two countries.
Bush has expressed fascination with China’s economic transformation since his first visit to Beijing in 1975, when his father was head of the US liaison office in the country. – AFP/de
Channel News Asia