BEIJING – President Bush symbolically challenged China’s repression of religion today as he opened a diplomatically sensitive visit here, but he kept most of his focus on an economic and security agenda that included a new multibillion-dollar sale of U.S.-built airplanes.
In his first public appearance, even before the welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, Bush worshipped at a state-sanctioned Protestant church to send a message about free expression of faith in a country that harshly smothers it. The president, aides said, has been offended by the recent harassment of religious figures affiliated with illegal underground churches.
At the same time, Bush avoided provocative language and spent most of his time talking about trade and nuclear non-proliferation issues.
“Access to American markets has played an important role in China’s economic development,” Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday. “And China needs to provide a level playing field for American farmers and businesses seeking access to China’s market.”
To establish the friendly tone of the visit to China, the third of Bush’s presidency, the White House arranged for him to go mountain biking today with China’s Olympic athletes, an event that aides assumed would be widely shown on state television and become the defining image of the trip. The idea, they said, was to signal directly to the Chinese people that no matter what they hear from their government, the president is not hostile toward their country.
The multifaceted strategy for the trip reflected Bush’s sometimes competing priorities in dealing with this emerging economic and political power. While he used a speech in Japan at the beginning of his weeklong Asia trip to gently prod China to embrace more freedom and democracy, highlighting Taiwan as a model, he played down such talk upon arriving here, never mentioning those themes in the radio address.
In fact, Michael Green, the president’s top National Security Council adviser on Asia, said the “top of the list” of priorities for Bush in his meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao was to coordinate pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Other issues on the U.S. agenda are the widespread Chinese piracy of American movies and software, and what critics say is the undervalued Chinese currency, which keeps Chinese products artificially cheap.
But the juggling act underlying the approach to China has drawn criticism. “We are concerned that the human rights situation has fallen on the list of priorities in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship in recent years,” Human Rights Watch wrote Bush in an open letter last week.
Bush aides privately have said that they have seen backsliding by China on human rights in the past six months. During a meeting at the United Nations in September, Bush gave Hu a list of political prisoners he was concerned about. Aides had hoped that some of the detainees would be freed before Bush arrived, but none were.