San Diego Union Tribune

November 20, 2005

Religion is Bush's 1st focus in China
President attends church, urges freedom to worship

By George E. Condon Jr.

BEIJING – President Bush opened his visit to China today by worshipping in a Christian church, dramatizing his demands for more religious freedom in this communist country and then meeting with the leaders who have been resisting those demands.

Bush was scheduled to spend 41 hours here on his third trip to China as president, and his decision to begin in church was intended to pressure Chinese President Hu Jintao to provide more freedoms for his 1.3 billion people.

Prodded by U.S. evangelical Christians and a bipartisan group in Congress, he has long championed the cause of Chinese persecuted for their religious beliefs. Bush met with Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, long denounced by China, in Washington before the trip.

The president made his case directly to Hu yesterday when the two leaders met in the Great Hall of the People just off Tiananmen Square. "It is important that social, political and religious freedoms grow in China," he said in his formal statement read standing next to the Chinese leader. "And we encourage China to continue making the historic transition to greater freedom."

Hu responded that "notable and historic progress" had already been made and called it inevitable that the two countries would differ on such things.

On other matters, the two leaders promised to keep working on areas of friction in trade and economics, with the goal set by Hu of "mutual benefit and win-win results."

The tone of the day was set earlier, though, not by formal statements but by the exchange of bibles, the playing of hymns and shared worship.

As he entered Gangwashi Church with first lady Laura Bush, he was greeted by pastor Du Fengying, who gave him two Chinese bibles. He then wrote in her guest book, "May God bless the Christians of China."

Gangwashi Church is one of only five officially sanctioned Protestant churches in Beijing. Closed during the Cultural Revolution, it is now operated by the China Christian Council, a government agency.

Bush noted China's loosening of some restrictions on worship but urged officials to do more.

"My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly," he said during the church service, after applauding the small choir's rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." "A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths and gives people a chance to express themselves through worship with the Almighty."

Sitting in the front row, Bush donned headphones to hear English translations of the sermon and the service. The church, which was used for storage when it was closed, features high, plain windows and peeling paint on the walls.

Tucked into Beijing's Xicheng District off an alley not far from Tiananmen Square, the marble and faded-brick church has 22 rows of well-worn seats and a small piano to accompany the choir. It holds only about 300 people and is tiny compared with the other venues that the president is scheduled to visit.

After the services, Bush remarked that "the spirit of the Lord is very strong inside your church."

In making freedom of religion the public focus of the first day of his visit, the president kept a promise he made before leaving Washington.

"I will continue to remind President Hu about . . . my personal faith and the belief that people should be allowed to worship freely," he said in a pre-departure interview. He added, "And a vibrant, whole society is one that recognizes that certain freedoms are inherent and need to be part of a complete society."

From the church, Bush headed to perhaps the largest modern building in this ancient capital – the sprawling, 1.7-million-square-foot Great Hall of the People just off Tiananmen Square – for his meeting with Hu. Bush also was to meet with Premier Wen Jiabao.

The agenda for those discussions makes this perhaps the most challenging part of his trip. Bush is particularly concerned about Sino-American frictions over trade, including China's failure to live up to past promises to crack down on the piracy of U.S. pharmaceuticals as well as American DVDs and other intellectual property.

That issue has been a major irritant between the two countries. The Chinese also differ with the United States on the best approaches to North Korea and Iraq, topics that will be "at the top of the list" when Bush meets with Hu, according to Mike Green, assistant national security adviser to the president.

Heading into the talks, the White House stressed the need for more candor in the relationship. Last week in Kyoto, Japan, Bush chided the Chinese on their restrictions on basic freedoms.

"In areas where we don't see things the same, the president will be candid, as he always has been with his Chinese counterparts," Green told reporters aboard Air Force One flying here from South Korea.

Green said the president sees religious freedom as a subject that demands frank conversation. He promised that Bush will follow up his Sunday morning worship by "talking to President Hu and his Chinese counterparts about things that he believes they should do to strengthen Chinese society by giving more opportunities for Chinese citizens to worship, to speak freely and to exercise other rights."

On the eve of his departure for Asia, leading members of Congress urged Bush to call attention to the rampant human-rights abuses they say are routine in China.

"The Chinese government is guilty of systematic torture against religious believers," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., one of the members involved in the campaign.

"All of us are calling on President Bush to speak very, very precisely about what we know and what we expect of the Chinese government," he said. "For too long, they have gotten away with infamous and horrific behavior when it comes to human rights."

The president signaled that he will be blunt on economic issues, as well. During his weekly radio address broadcast yesterday, he demanded that China provide freer access for American goods and finally implement their repeated vows to crack down on the theft of U.S. patents and copyrights.

"China needs to provide a level playing field for American farmers and businesses seeking access to China's market," Bush said, insisting that China play by the "global rules" that bind others.

Of Hu's promises on intellectual property rights, Bush said, "These statements are a good beginning, but China needs to take action to ensure these goals are fully implemented.

Aides hailed as good news the reports that Beijing will be purchasing 70 of U.S.-based Boeing Company's 737 planes.

Another topic expected to figure prominently in the talks concerns U.S. unhappiness over China's currency rate, which Washington believes is manipulated to make the country's exports cheaper in the United States. China's trade surplus with the United States may hit $200 billion this year.

Avian-flu prevention and Chinese cooperation in the war on terrorism also are on the Bush-Hu agenda. And the U.S. president made sure to include some recreation amid the high-level talks, taking an afternoon bike ride with Chinese athletes training for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Bush's Asia trip ends tomorrow in Mongolia.

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