BEIJING – President Bush and President Hu Jintao sought to ease tensions Sunday over China's rapid rise, grappling with disputes over trade, human rights and religious freedom and trying to emphasize common ground about North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
The two leaders met at the Great Hall of the People, the sprawling government building on the edge of Tiananmen Square.
Trying to send a message to China's leaders, Bush opened the day by attending church services, taking a front-row seat with his wife, Laura, at Gangwashi Church, one of five officially recognized Protestant churches in Beijing.
"It wasn't all that long ago that people were not allowed to worship openly in this society," the president said after the hourlong service. "My hope is that the government of China will not fear the Christians who gather to worship openly. A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths."
In a day of talks, the president was expected to trumpet a trade concession from China. He also was to prod Chinese leaders about currency system changes, human rights and the piracy of American movies, computer programs and other copyright material. Bush also was seeking China's cooperation on North Korea, Iran, Syria and other trouble spots.
Bush, however, chose to make the worship service his first public event during a two-day state visit to China. The significance of Bush's visit to the church, a modest marble-and-brick building tucked off an alley, was clear to the congregation of about 400.
Bush received a standing ovation when he entered the sanctuary, which looked much like a classroom with wooden movie theater seats. There was more applause when the pastor announced his presence, and members of the choir assembled outside to see Bush off afterward.
"The spirit of the Lord is very strong inside your church," Bush said.
The service at Gangwashi Church, one of five officially recognized Protestant churches in Beijing, was in Chinese, but its structure and content would have be familiar to any Protestant parishioner in the United States. Bush and other guests listened to a translation over headphones.
In the church's guest book, Bush wrote "May God bless the Christians of China."
Under the president's inscription, the first lady wrote: "And with love and respect, Laura Bush."
This month, the State Department cited China, a land of 1.3 billion people, as one of eight countries of "particular concern" for denying religious freedom. The White House urged China's state-controlled media not to censor news of Bush's visit, which includes meetings and dinner with China's top leaders.
China's massive trade surplus with the United States — likely to hit $200 billion this year — is a political headache for Bush. So it was good news when he heard upon his arrival that Beijing was buying 70 of Chicago-based Boeing Co.'s 737 planes.
The administration said the purchase was "a testament to how our approach to China is yielding real results." But Bush said China needs to do more "to provide a level playing field for American farmers and businesses seeking access to China's market."
He said China had made a good start by promising to protect intellectual property rights, move toward a more market-based currency and ease the trade imbalance. "But China needs to take action to ensure these goals are fully implemented," Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday.
Bush was to meet with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
Bird flu was a major issue in the talks, after China's acknowledgment Wednesday of its first human cases of the disease. New outbreaks among poultry in China are a daily occurrence.
China was the third stop on Bush's Asian trip, which began in Japan with the president criticizing China's behavior. He suggested China emulate the democratic progress of Taiwan, the self-governed island that Beijing regards as a renegade province.
The visit to China was to open with a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, one the largest buildings in China, on the edge of Tiananmen Square. It was Bush's third trip as president to China, although he lived here in the 1970s when his father was the top U.S. diplomat in Beijing.
In Bush's view, the U.S. has a mixed relationship with China. His administration is concerned about China's growing economic and military might and its surging demand for oil — a factor in rising U.S. gasoline prices.
China also is a huge and lucrative market for U.S. goods and a partner in the effort to persuade North Korea to abandon it nuclear weapons program.
"I think we've got a lot of issues to deal with, is the best way to describe it," Bush said in a pre-trip interview. "China has got influence. China is a big, powerful nation. And, therefore, it's in our interest that we share ideas and work together."
U.S. officials worry that China's military buildup could threaten American interests in Asia and eventually turn China into a global economic and political rival. China's expanding missile forces pose a threat not only to Taiwan and other parts of Asia but potentially even to the U.S.
Bush is pressing China to speed the revaluation of its currency, which U.S. companies contend is undervalued by as much as 40 percent. That makes Chinese goods cheaper in the United States and American goods more expensive in China.
"The fundamental question is whether the Chinese will allow market forces to help drive the movement of their currency," said Faryar Shirzad, the president's deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs.