BEIJING: US President George W. Bush made a new plea for freedom of expression in China on Friday just hours before he was to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
The US leader, who has said he does not want to politicise his attendance at the Games, said he could be candid with China because the two countries had built up a strong relationship built on “respect and trust”.
“I strongly believe societies that allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush told reporters at the official opening of the new US embassy in Beijing.
“I will continue to be candid about our mutual global responsibilities,” he said.
The comments were noticeably more restrained than the speech he made in Thailand on Thursday just before flying into Beijing, in which he made wide-ranging criticism of China’s attitude towards human rights.
In particular he spoke out against China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists.
Bush has faced considerable criticism back home for his decision to attend the opening ceremony because of China’s human rights record, and a series of controversies have complicated the final run-in to the sporting extravaganza.
The White House has 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 has responded to Bush’s pre-Olympic 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.
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.
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 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.
Channel News Asia