US President George W Bush wasted no time on Friday raising the touchy issues of religious freedom and free speech in China, hours before he was to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Despite criticism by China for meddling in its internal affairs, he used the dedication of a new American embassy in Beijing to drive home his point that freedom of speech was the best way to promote prosperity and peace.
“We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose,” he said.
“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said a few hours before a lunch hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao for foreign leaders.
Bush has been criticised by human rights activists and some US lawmakers for going to the opening ceremonies and the Games, arguing it offered credibility to the Chinese government despite its record on human and religious rights.
He countered that he was primarily going to the Games to cheer on the US athletes and that he frequently has candid conversations with China’s leaders about religious freedom and its human rights record.
“Candour is most effective when nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “Ive worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”
Attending the ceremony was his father George HW Bush, who served not only as president but also as envoy to China, as well as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who helped orchestrate a thaw in China-US relations in the 1970s.
Just hours later, Bush was warmly greeted by China’s president at a luncheon held at the Great Hall of the People for foreign leaders attending the Olympics.
Bush’s attendance at the Olympics is the first by a sitting US president on foreign soil.