BEIJING – Eager for the Olympics to begin, President Bush gave a pep talk to U.S. athletes Friday and then settled in for the opening ceremonies, after starting his day with another swipe at China's human rights record.
"It's gotta be really exciting, thinking about marching in that stadium and representing our country, "an enthusiastic Bush told the cheering American contingent gathered in the Olympic fencing center.
"We appreciate all the hard work you've put in to get to this spot," said Bush, accompanied by wife Laura and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. team's honorary captain.
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"We want you to win as many golds as you possibly can. Go forth, give it all you got."
The president then posed for photos with the athletes, dressed in blue blazers, white slacks and white caps.
Bush earlier used the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy to prod China to lessen repression and "let people say what they think." The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing's commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.
"We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful," Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.
The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world's biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.
"We've had these back-and-forths with China for years," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Beijing responded Thursday to criticism in a Bush speech by defending its human rights record and saying he shouldn't be meddling in China's internal affairs.
But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China's contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.
"Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust," Bush said. "I've worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust."
The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China's importance to the United States.
"It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations," Bush said. "It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come."
The embassy ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush's father and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.
It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.
Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over, though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.
The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.
The dedication followed China's unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.
The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.
Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.
His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.
On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watches women's basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men's and women's Olympic swimming.
Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China's vice president and premier. But then it's back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.
Dwyane Wade, a member of the superstar-laden men's basketball team, said he was happy Bush would be in the stands.
"We get support of our president, that means a lot. That means a lot of people ... back home want us to succeed," Wade said.
"So we have to go out there and play like we're representing the US of A," he said. "If we do that ... we'll win it."