BEIJING – President Bush dedicated a massive new $434 million U.S. embassy in Beijing on Friday, calling it a symbol of deepening ties between the two trading partners and sometimes political rivals.
Bush, in Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, said the eight-story structure represented the "solid foundation underpinning" relations between the two countries and a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come. He called current ties between Washington and Beijing "constructive and cooperative and candid."
Bush hailed the two countries' work to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons, battle diseases, respond to natural disasters and increase trade. Then he criticized — again — the communist nation's repression of its people.
"We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful," he said
It was the continuation of a game of political one-upmanship that Bush began earlier in his Asia trip when he bluntly criticized China's human rights record. China warned the U.S. president to stop meddling in its business.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang admonished Bush, saying, "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues." He said the Chinese government is dedicated to promoting basic rights, and that "Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts."
The dustup over human rights unfolded just as Bush arrived in Beijing with hopes that the summer games would be all he has ever expected from them: a spirited sporting event devoid of politics. Yet the White House also knew it would draw China's ire by challenging its crackdown on human rights.
Politics, at least peripherally, have always been part of the Olympics. This time, too. But the rhetorical barbs were expected to recede quickly as the games began.
"The Olympic torch will light the home of an ancient civilization with a grand history," Bush said at the embassy. "Thousands of years ago the Chinese people developed a common language and unified a great nation. China became the center for art and literature and commerce and philosophy. China advanced the frontiers of knowledge in medicine, astronomy, navigation, engineering and many other fields."
The new American embassy in Beijing is the second largest in the world, after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad. The 500,000-square-foot structure, situated on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.
The dedication follows China's unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. The 250,000-square-foot glass and limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.
The president attended the dedication of the embassy with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who in the 1970s served as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China. Also in attendance was Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.
The former president reminisced about his days in the city, then called Peking, when a young George W. Bush rode a bicycle around the city.
Bush, a president who speaks fluent sports, said the last time he was in China he had the opportunity to break in a mountain biking course. He joked that he contemplated entering Olympic bike events, but that his wife, first lady Laura Bush, reminded him that "they don't give any medals for last place."
Bush's presence is a precedent. He will be the first U.S. president to ever attend an Olympics on foreign soil when he soaks up the splendor of the opening ceremony.
"I'm looking forward to cheering our athletes on," Bush said. "I'm not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship."
The U.S. trip to China got off to a bumpy start when a charter airplane carrying the White House press corps was detained for nearly three hours Friday at Beijing's international airport not long after Bush arrived to attend the Games. The flight crew was told the Chinese were insisting that all luggage be inspected. Typically, reporters, photographers and camera crews are able to get off the White House press charter right after landing, board buses and head to their hotels and work areas while U.S. State Department officials process immigration and customs details.
Bush will meet the president of the International Olympic Committee later in the day, and then members of the U.S. Olympic Team for a presidential pep talk. At night comes the elaborate opening ceremony. Tickets are hard to come by, unless you're a president.
Over the weekend, Bush on Saturday will meet with Olympic sponsors and watch women's basketball. He and family members with him will likely choose other events to attend.
On Sunday, he will attend a Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, the same practice he followed during his last visit to China in 2005. He then plans to take in some men's and women's Olympic swimming.
Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon. Bush will meet with Chinese President Hu Jinato at his presidential compound, and then hold sessions with China's vice president and premier. Then its back to sports on Sunday night: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game.
On Monday, the president will attend a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China. He is expected to add in other sporting events before flying back to Washington that day.