BEIJING – President Bush is eagerly awaiting the start of the Summer Olympics, making history as the first president to attend this world athletic competition on foreign soil.
But his arrival in Beijing Thursday night on the eve of the opening of the games came amid an atmosphere of tension with China's leaders over his high-profile speech in Thailand exhorting the growing world power to grant more freedom to its people.
Bush, first lady Laura Bush and their daughter Barbara came off Air Force One together, where they got a red-carpet greeting from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and others, and then sped away in a motorcade.
Bush, an avid sports fan, has said he wants to enjoy the Summer Olympics competition, but also will talk to President Hu Jintao about human rights and a host of other bilateral issues.
Before his plane landed here, China's Foreign Ministry released a terse statement saying that no one should interfere with China's internal affairs.
Bush plans to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics on Friday night and go to a series of sporting events through Monday, including U.S. basketball and baseball games against China. Although he exhorted Beijing to improve human rights in a major speech in Thailand before flying here, Bush has said he is intent on making his Olympics visit about sports, not politics.
In a speech outlining America's achievements and challenges in Asia, Bush had pushed Thursday for a free press, free assembly and labor rights in China, and spoke out sharply against its detentions of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. He said he wasn't trying to antagonize China, but called such reform the only path the potent U.S. rival can take to reach its full potential.
He antagonized the Chinese anyway, setting the stage for an interesting reception when he attends the opening ceremonies Friday evening and meets with Hu on Sunday after attending church.
"The Chinese government puts people first, and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens basic rights and freedom," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday in response to Bush's speech. "Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts."
He said China advocates discussions on differing views on human rights and religions on "a basis of mutual respect and equality," then indicated it didn't see Bush's criticism in that light.
"We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries' internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues," Qin said.
Bush did offer praise for China's market reforms. "Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions," he said. "Yet, change will arrive."
Bush has been trying to walk a tightrope in attending the games, wanting to avoid causing Beijing embarrassment during its two weeks on the world stage while also coming under pressure to use his visit to openly press China's leaders for greater religious tolerance and other freedoms. Chinese officials bristled when he met with Chinese activists at the White House last week.
"With this speech, Bush is trying to address two polar issues: easing the controversy created by those who oppose his visit during the Games and simultaneously maintaining America's strategy with China," said Yan Xuetong, an expert in U.S.-China relations at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University.
Making the repression issue timely, China has rounded up opponents ahead of the Olympics and slapped restrictions on journalists, betraying promises made when it landed the hosting rights.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged the international community "to speak with a strong and united voice" to maintain pressure on China over human rights. But he conceded Beijing's record has improved.
"Remember, it was not all that long ago they were in the middle of the cultural revolution with people getting put up against a wall and basically knocked off," he told Nine Network television before flying to Beijing.
The White House's handling of the speech demonstrated the president's delicate balancing act. Bush's address containing the criticism of China was delivered outside the country, in Thailand. The White House took the unusual step of releasing the text of it even earlier, about 18 hours before he spoke.
And the speech was followed by a string of events Thursday, by both the president and his wife, that were clearly aimed at shifting the focus to the repressive military regime in Myanmar, neighbor to Thailand, where Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej regards himself as a friend of Myanmar's generals. Myanmar, also known as Burma, marks the 20th anniversary of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists on Friday.
In his speech Thursday, Bush also urged North Korea to live up to its promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons, adding: "The United States will continue to insist that the regime in Pyongyang end its harsh rule and respect the dignity and human rights of the North Korean people."