Bush's Olympic Game Plan: Cultivating a Relationship
By Michael Abramowitz
TOYAKO, Japan -- As the start of the Olympic Games approaches, expect incidents to generate criticism of President Bush's decision to attend the opening ceremonies in Beijing -- a decision that Bush explained Sunday was aimed at avoiding an "affront" to the Chinese people.
A case in point:
Late last month, Bush met in the Roosevelt Room with Li Baiguang and Li Heping, Chinese lawyers who were being honored for their work promoting human rights and religious freedom by the National Endowment for the Democracy.
According to NED chairman Carl Gershman, it was mostly a photo opportunity, but Bush told the two -- as well as representatives of awardees prevented from leaving China -- how much he admired their courage and work. He told them that he planned after his presidency to create a center at a university in Texas where people such as they could come to write about their experiences and struggles and speak to American audiences.
Six days later, after the two lawyers returned to China, they were among several human rights activists who were detained by Chinese authorities and prevented from attending a dinner with visiting congressmen from the United States, including Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.).
Dennis Wilder, the senior Asia hand on the National Security Council, told reporters on Air Force One traveling here Saturday that the United States was "disturbed" by the incident and communicated its displeasure to the Chinese through the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
But the episode appears likely to further inflame the anger of human rights activists who are already angry with Bush's decision, announced Thursday, to attend the opening ceremonies.
Ellen Bork, who follows China for Freedom House, said in an e-mail that the Chinese actions "show contempt for the president's democracy agenda and quite a bit of disrespect to the president personally and to his office."
Aides say that Bush is proud of the personal relationship he feels he has developed with President Hu Jintao, and that he often uses it to speak frankly about human rights when they meet in private. Wilder said Bush will once again raise the need to China to increase freedoms when he meets with Hu on the sidelines of the G-8 here.
At the Roosevelt Room ceremony, Bush told the assemblage that he had "a message" for the Chinese leaders when he goes to Beijing next month, according to Gershman, though he didn't say what it was. The implication was that it would have to do with human rights.
Bork said the incident raises the stakes for the president at the Olympics. "Unless President Bush gets a lot of political prisoners out, and meets with a a wide range of activists and dissidents, much like Reagan did in the Soviet Union, his visit will expose either a lack of influence, or an unwillingness to use it," she said.
At his news conference Sunday with Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda, Bush indicated comfort with his approach to China. "The Chinese people are watching very carefully about the decisions by world leaders," the president said.
"I happen to believe not going to the opening games ... would be an affront to the Chinese people, which may make it more difficult to ... be able to speak frankly with the Chinese leadership. That's why I'm doing what I'm doing."
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