Bush to slam China on rights

President Bush plans today to use some of his bluntest language to date on human rights in China, saying that “America stands in firm opposition” to China's detention of political dissidents and religious activists, according to a draft of a speech to be delivered here just before he flies to Beijing for the Olympic Games' opening ceremony.

“We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential,” Bush planned to say. “And we press for openness and justice, not to impose our beliefs but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs.”

Bush will also say that “the United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” according to the draft, which the administration released to reporters traveling on the president's airplane.

Many human rights groups have criticized the president for his decision to attend the Games and for what they call his unwillingness to confront Beijing over a crackdown on dissent and new Internet restrictions in the run-up to the Olympics.

The advocates have been pressing Bush to make a stronger statement while in Beijing about China's human rights practices or to meet with dissidents. Both scenarios appear unlikely. Bush has said he is going to the Olympics to cheer on U.S. athletes and to show his “respect” for the Chinese people.

Still, his comments, to be delivered in Thailand several hours before he flies to Beijing, are sure to draw the notice of the Chinese government. It has already bristled over Bush's meeting with five Chinese human rights activists last week.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the president chose to make the comments as part of a larger assessment of U.S. relations with Asia.

“This speech puts together what the president has been saying for 7 1/2 years but does it in a very focused way,” she said. Perino said China “is one of the most important relationships that we have in the United States, and the speech is being given on the eve of his trip there. So he thought it was appropriate to talk about it at this point.”

Sophie Richardson, who monitors Asia for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail exchange that it is “absurd to try to sustain the claim that America's policies are principled while then effectively standing back and saying, ‘We will watch from the sidelines while the Chinese do what they do.'” She said it is a “diplomatic travesty” for Bush not to meet with dissidents in Beijing or insist on a nationally broadcast speech on a free press or other issues.

Two days into his ninth trip to Asia, Bush divided his time Wednesday between South Korea and Thailand, two of the region's closest allies with the United States. He spent the first part of the day in Seoul, where he held meetings and ate a lunch of American beef filet and Korean short ribs with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has faced severe political problems after clearing the way for importing U.S. beef, which many South Koreans worry may carry mad cow disease.

A major focus of their talks was continuing efforts to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The United States recently agreed to take North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism, as part of a deal in which the communist state would disable its main nuclear facility.

At a news conference with Lee, Bush said North Korea will not be removed from the list unless leader Kim Jong Il agrees to a plan to verify that it is disarming. Monday is the first day North Korea could be removed from the list, after a 45-day congressional review period expires, but Pyongyang has yet to come up with a plan acceptable the United States and its allies, according to U.S. officials.

“We'll see,” Bush told reporters. “It's his choice to make as to whether or not he comes off the list.”

After a quick trip to rally with troops at the U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan, Bush flew to Thailand, where he held talks Wednesday evening with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Bush is also planning to highlight the cause of freedom in Myanmar on this trip; he meets with Myanmar dissidents today, while first lady Laura Bush will visit a camp for about 38,000 Myanmar refugees who have fled their country's military dictatorship.