WASHINGTON – Framing President George W. Bush's sports-driven trip to China, the White House said with some skepticism Wednesday that it expects the communist country to show it is loosening restrictions on free expression, and not just during the fleeting spotlight of the Olympic Games.
"What we are looking for in China is not gestures," said Dennis Wilder, senior director for Asian Affairs at the White House National Security Council. "We are looking for structural change. We are looking for long-term change."
As scrutiny grows over how China is treating its people and the visiting media, the White House defended Bush's approach to the Beijing games. The president plans to prod Chinese President Hu Jintao privately about human rights and speak publicly about religious freedom after attending a church service in Beijing.
His time in China is built around attending sporting events, however, so much that his agenda is being kept largely open so he can pick which events to watch.
Bush is visiting South Korea and Thailand on his Asian trip before spending more than three full days in Beijing. The symbolic centerpiece will be the opening ceremony on Aug. 8, which Bush plans to attend.
The White House has sought to show its commitment to human rights as criticism has mounted over China's security crackdown and limits on free speech.
Wilder acknowledged the concern that Bush's presence at the Games adds legitimacy to the Chinese government, a point raised by some of the prominent Chinese activists whom Bush met with at the White House on Tuesday. Wilder said Bush countered that he can do more good by attending the Olympics, pressing his points with Chinese leaders and showing his faith in the Chinese people.
The goal is to influence China's direction without politicizing the games, Wilder said.
"If you don't have a good working relationship with the Chinese government, how do you do that?" Wilder said.
Noting that China has set up zones for people to protest, Wilder set out some expectations. He questioned whether foreigners, not just Chinese, would be able to protest, and whether the Chinese government truly would allow people to express their views.
"That has yet to be demonstrated, I think, that the Chinese are truly moving in that direction," Wilder said.
Bush leaves Washington on Monday and arrives in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, he will meet with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, hold a news conference and visit a U.S. Army garrison before flying to Bangkok, Thailand, to meet with Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.
The next day in Bangkok, Aug. 7, Bush will give a speech about the future of the American presence in East Asia. Meanwhile, his wife, Laura Bush, will visit Thailand's Mae La camp, home to thousands of refugees who have fled repression in neighboring Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Bush will then be in China for four nights, from the evening of Aug. 7 through Aug. 10. During that time, he will help dedicate the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing, meet Chinese leaders, go to church and attend one of the marquee Olympic events, the basketball game between the United States and China.
He is expected to have a social visit with former Russian President Vladimir Putin, who now serves as prime minister. Bush will not hold formal meetings with world leaders during the Olympic Games, Wilder said. Bush returns to Washington on Aug. 11.