Bush proves unexpected rights champion

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China’s elaborate efforts to smother dissenting views at this Olympics have run into one unexpected obstacle – US President George W. Bush.

Mr Bush signed up early to attend the Beijing games at a time when some world leaders were flirting with boycotts or complaining that their August schedule was already full up.

Yet during his four-day trip to the Chinese capital, which finished on Monday, he has surprised even human rights groups by the directness of his comments.

In an interview with NBC on Monday, Mr Bush said that he had used his meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao to urge more action from China to resolve the crisis in Darfur. “My attitude is that if you have relations with Mr Bashir [Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir], think about helping to solve the humanitarian crisis in Darfur,” he said. “That is my message to the Chinese government.”

In the process, Mr Bush has woven a surprisingly deft path between voicing public criticisms about issues China is deeply sensitive about and showing respect to his Chinese hosts. While so much of US foreign policy has come under heavy criticism during the current administration, Mr Bush has won plaudits for the way he has managed the ever more complicated and important relationship with China.

In the television interview on Monday, he said attending the games helped build a relationship of trust with China. “Coming here is a sign of respect for the Chinese people,” he said. “This is a big, important nation.”

His support for the games was appreciated in Beijing, especially after the March unrest in Tibet threatened to trigger a boycott by world leaders. At the opening extravaganza on Friday, he became the first US president to attend an Olympics outside the US – a substantial PR victory for China.

Mr Bush has been in his element at the sports arenas, giving a pep talk to the US men’s basketball team before their clash with China and joking with the women’s beach volleyball duo.

But he mixed the blokey banter with some unusually sharp criticisms for a leader visiting China. Beijing last week revoked the visa of Joey Cheek, the gold-medal winning skater who campaigns about the genocide in Sudan. “I am sorry Joey Cheek did not come, he is a good man,” Mr Bush told NBC. “Joey Cheek has just got to know that I took the Sudanese message for him.”

At the opening of the new US embassy in Beijing – the second largest after Iraq – he told the Chinese: “Societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful.” After attending a church service on Sunday, he urged China to expand religious freedom. “No state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion,” he said.

When Mr Bush attacked China’s human rights record before arriving in Beijing, his words were met with swift rebuke. “We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs,” said Qin Gang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson.

Yet since he arrived he has been given lavish hospitality – even if some members of the US delegation and press have grumbled about logistical problems placed in their path. Indeed, on Sunday Mr Hu threw a lunch for Mr Bush and the rest of the large travelling Bush clan – including former President George H.W. Bush, the president’s wife Laura, sister, brother and daughter.

Whether his comments will have any impact is less clear. US officials seemed hopeful Mr Bush’s diplomacy would help local churches. “President Hu seemed to indicate that the door is opening on religious freedom in China and that in the future there will be more room for religious believers,” said Dennis Wilder, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council.

That did not stop Chinese security officials from detaining Hua Huiqi, a religious activist, as he was travelling to attend the same church service as Mr Bush on Sunday. By Monday evening, his brother said he had still not reappeared.

Mr Bush’s criticisms have not received wide publicity in China’s mainstream media. A Xinhua news agency report had the title “Bush blends sport, politics at Beijing Olympics”, but the politics part mentioned only his lunch with Mr Hu.

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