WASHINGTON – President Bush met Tuesday in his White House residence with prominent Chinese activists, a move meant to send a reassuring message to human rights groups upset that the president is going next week to Beijing to watch the Olympics.
The White House identified the five activists as Harry Wu, Wei Jingsheng, Rebiya Kadeer, Sasha Gong, and Bob Fu. Presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush held the talks to "discuss his concerns about human rights in China" and to promise that he would carry those concerns to Beijing, where he is meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other officials along with attending several days of competition.
Bush also saw Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Tuesday, while Yang was at the White House meeting with national security adviser Stephen Hadley. Bush told Yang of his view that the Olympics present China with an opportunity to demonstrate compassion on human rights and freedom, Perino said.
"Engagement with Chinese leaders gives him an opportunity to make the United States' position clear, human rights and religious freedom should not be denied to anyone," Perino said.
She said the group of activists urged Bush to deliver his message not only to the Chinese leadership but to the people of China.
Hadley appeared with Yang later at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He told the audience that Bush "looks forward to celebrating athletic competition and the Olympics spirit."
Yang also met Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice spokesman Sean McCormack said they talked about the Olympics, North Korea and Japan and trade.
Bush leaves Monday for an Asia trip that includes stops in South Korea and Thailand before he attends the opening ceremonies and first few days of the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympics.
Human rights groups had urged Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies in a show of opposition to China's crackdown on protesters in Tibet. The Bush administration argues that the Olympics are a sporting event not to be politicized and that the president always raises human and religious rights with Chinese officials in the appropriate context.
His meetings on Tuesday appeared aimed to highlight that approach.
The activists he gathered at the White House represent some of the most prominent.
Wei Jingsheng is one of China's best-known dissidents, a democracy activist who spent a total of 17 years in prison in China for urging reforms of its communist system. He went into exile in the U.S. in 1997.
Bob Fu heads the China Aid Association, a Texas-based Christian rights group. A press release on the group's Web site said Fu gave Bush "Prayer for China" wrist bands and encouraged him to wear them as "a symbol of solidarity with the Chinese people."
Fu, a former Communist Party researcher turned evangelical preacher, also asked Bush to intercede on behalf of Zhang Rongliang, an underground church leader imprisoned in China. Chinese worshippers and clergy in unofficial churches are regularly harassed and detained. Activists say unregistered "house churches" such as Zhang's have as many as 100 million members nationwide.
"This historic meeting sends a strong statement to the Chinese government officials of the president's priorities in his visit to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games opening next week," the aid association's Web site said.
Harry Wu, the executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation and a human rights activist who spent 19 years in Chinese prison camps, is known for his campaign to expose abuses in labor camps.
Rebiya Kadeer served six years in a Chinese prison before going into exile in the United States in 2005. She has since become a fierce critic of Beijing's suppression campaign against her Muslim ethnic group, the Uighurs that once dominated a Central Asia border region and which now agitate for secession.
Sasha Gong is a writer and political activist who spent seven years in the 1970s working in a Chinese factory. She left China in 1987 to escape political persecution and has worked for the Cantonese service of Radio Free Asia and as a researcher for a labor rights group in Washington.
Yang said at the Woodrow Wilson Center that his country has made tremendous progress in human rights. Dialogue, not confrontation, is the way to address differences between the U.S. and China on the question of human rights, he said.
He called the Olympics in Beijing a long-standing dream of the Chinese people that would be a success with the help of the world.
Bush conducts most, but not all, official visits in the Oval Office, not his residential quarters in the White House. The White House did not reveal the reason for the choice of venue of Tuesday.