Amid concern over a crackdown on dissidents, President Bush pressed China on Sunday to expand religious, political and social freedom and won little more than promises from President Hu Jintao to open China’s huge markets to U.S. farmers and businesses.
Hu said the two leaders sought an outcome of “mutual benefit and win-win results.”
But their meeting Sunday at the Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square appeared to produce no breakthroughs on U.S. demands for currency reforms in China and no details about how China would cut its trade surplus with the United States, on track to hit $200 billion this year.
Bush’s two-day China stop — his third as president to the communist giant — was the centerpiece of a weeklong Asia tour, but an acrid debate at home about the war in Iraq has followed him here. While overseas, the White House has not let a day go by without a no-holds-barred verbal counterattack against Democratic critics of the president’s war policies.
Bush tones down Iraq rhetoric
Bush appeared determined Sunday to scale back the rhetoric. Appearing before reporters at his hotel just before he attended a lavish dinner with his Chinese hosts, Bush said “I totally reject” the notion that someone could be called unpatriotic for disagreeing with him.
“People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq,” he said. “This is not an issue of who is patriotic and who is not patriotic. It’s an issue of an honest open debate about the way forward in Iraq.”
On Thursday, Bush was asked whether he agreed with an assertion by Vice President Dick Cheney that the critics are “reprehensible” or others who say asking questions is patriotic. The president chose Cheney.
Bush also toned down sharp comments by his aides about Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. The longtime defense hawk’s call for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq prompted the White House to compare the combat-decorated Vietnam veteran to war critic-movie producer Michael Moore and suggest Murtha was counseling surrender to terrorists.
On Sunday, Bush called Murtha a “fine man and a good man.”
“I know the decision to call for the immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way,” the president said. “I disagree with his position.”
A Chinese crackdown on dissidents before Bush arrived dismayed U.S. officials, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. side would continue to raise the issue “quite vociferously with the Chinese government.”
She also expressed disappointment with China’s response to a U.S. request in September for action on specific human rights cases — a list Bush described bluntly as “dissidents that we believe are unfairly imprisoned.”
“We’ve certainly not seen the progress that we would expect,” Rice said.
Bush urges religious freedom
No questions from the press were permitted during the joint appearance by Bush and Hu, so the U.S. president’s give-and-take with reporters on his own was scheduled later in part to make a point about press freedom.
Bush said he pressed Hu for fairer treatment of non-governmental charity organizations that operate in China and suggested that the Chinese invite the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, and Roman Catholic leaders to China to discuss religious freedom.
Bush’s first public event during his visit was a worship service at Gangwashi Church, one of five officially recognized Protestant churches in Beijing. It was Bush’s way of nudging Chinese leaders to expand religious freedom to the communist nation’s 1.3 billion people.
“It is important that social, political and religious freedoms grow in China,” the president said at Hu’s side.
Later, Bush said pressing for religious freedom was a good way to ensure that other freedoms follow.
“They go hand in hand. A society which recognizes religious freedom is a society which will recognize political freedom as well,” he said. “President Hu is a thoughtful fellow, and he listened to what I had to say.”
Trade surplus on the agenda
China’s massive trade surplus is a political headache for Bush. As the president opened his visit, U.S. officials spread word that Beijing was buying 70 of Chicago-based Boeing Co.’s 737 planes.
The administration said the purchase was “a testament to how our approach to China is yielding real results.” But in a joint appearance with Hu, Bush said China needs to do more to provide fair opportunities for American farmers and businesses seeking access to China’s market. Later, Bush specifically cited a desire to sell U.S. beef in China.
He said China also needs to work harder to protect intellectual property rights. Piracy of U.S. movies, computer programs and other copyright material is rampant in China. Rice suggested that China is beginning to take the problem more seriously, and that Hu talked about specific steps to crack down on piracy.
Bush is pressing China for a faster revaluation of its currency, which U.S. companies contend is undervalued by as much as 40 percent. Undervaluation makes Chinese goods cheaper in the United States and American goods more expensive in China.
“We’ve seen some movement but not much in the currency valuation,” the president said.
Hu promised Bush that China will move to reduce its trade imbalance with the United States, but he did not discuss any specific steps.
He said China was willing to step up protection for intellectual property and would “unswervingly” press ahead with currency reform — where the United States says Beijing has not lived up to its promises.
Bird flu, N. Korea also addressed
The two leaders readily acknowledged differences but stressed cooperation in preventing and controlling bird flu and persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Bush noted that North Korea has committed in six-party talks to do just that. “The United States expects them to honor that commitment,” he said.
Bush said the U.S. relationship with China was important and “this trip will make it stronger.” He invited Hu to the United States next year, a makeup for a visit postponed last September because of Hurricane Katrina that Hu accepted.
The president’s visit wasn’t all serious. After the meetings with Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, Bush went for a vigorous hour-long mountain bike ride with six young Chinese men and women vying for spots of their nation’s Olympic mountain biking team.