Bush tries to allay Chinese concerns, gently addresses poor rights record

President tells students religious, political freedom strengthens societies

February 22, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Taking advantage of a rare opportunity to speak directly to this nation of 1.3 billion people, President Bush tried to convince ordinary Chinese today that the United States wants their country to flourish and that America is a kind, big-hearted nation, not a callous, international bully as it is sometimes perceived here.

Speaking live on Chinese Central TV, the state-run national network, Bush also tried to gently address China's poor human rights record and authoritarian system, saying that political and religious freedom does not weaken societies but strengthens them.

"In a free society, diversity is not disorder," Bush told a lecture hall filled with students, professors and other dignitaries at Beijing's Qinghua University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of China. "Debate is not strife. A free society trusts its citizens to seek greatness in themselves."

Bush's speech capped a quick, three-nation tour of East Asia that was postponed last fall after the attacks Sept. 11. The president first visited America's strongest regional allies, Japan and South Korea. He wraps up the trip today in Beijing where the traditionally bumpy U.S.-China relationship appears to be back on track because of increasingly shared goals in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

In his speech, the president tried to allay a major concern among many Chinese that the United States wants to contain their country and prevent its rise as a global power.

"We see a China that is becoming one of the most dynamic and creative societies in the world," Bush said. "China is on a rising path, and America welcomes the emergence of a strong, peaceful and prosperous China," Bush continued, drawing his first applause.

Bush tried to counter some of the negative impressions Chinese have of the United States, which he attributed to exaggerations in films and misrepresentations by others. He emphasized the role the rule of law plays in U.S. society, the nation's generosity toward the downtrodden in other countries, and the tradition of civic responsibility and voluntarism.

"We are the No. 1 provider of humanitarian aid to people around the word," said Bush, who cited the rescue efforts by police and firefighters who ran into the burning World Trade Center towers to save lives and the blood donations by ordinary people as evidence of Americans' giving nature. "You need to know none of this was ordered by the government; it happened spontaneously, by the initiative of a free people."

In the question-and-answer period, students peppered Bush about the U.S. position on the future of Taiwan, which the Chinese government views as a rebel province and has threatened to take by force if necessary. Students pushed the president on whether the United States is considering extending a proposed theater missile defense umbrella to protect Taiwan. They also tried to get him to publicly commit to Taiwan's reunification with the mainland.

"This is a question the Chinese people are very concerned about," a student said.

Bush voiced support for the so-called "One China" policy, a vague concept that says Taiwan and the mainland are part of one China.

As in yesterday's news conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Bush would say only that he is committed to a peaceful resolution of the dispute between the island and the mainland.

"I can't say it any more clearly that I am anxious there is a peaceful resolution," said Bush. "I hope it happens in my lifetime, and I hope it happens in yours."

Bush seemed a bit taken aback by the repetitive and aggressive questioning on Taiwan. "This seems to be a topic on people's minds," he said.

Bush's speech tried to address the United State's image problem in China, especially among the nation's youth. A dozen years ago, most young Chinese idealized America. Today, the feeling is far more mixed. Young Chinese still yearn to study, work and live in the United States but often complain about what they see as its intrusive and arrogant foreign policy.

Attitudes have hardened in recent years after the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1999. Most Chinese were convinced that the attack was a deliberate attempt to keep China down. Last year, ordinary Chinese were further angered when an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided over the South China Sea. Beijing blamed the collision on the U.S. pilot and held the 24-member air crew for 11 days before releasing it.

Some of Bush's message seemed to resonate on the streets of Beijing today, but Chinese continued to criticize him for dodging the Taiwan question. "Bush talks with humor and wit," said Ren Ximin, 20, a student of mechanical design at Chengde Petroleum Institute in neighboring Hebei province. "But to those important questions like the Taiwan issue, he only gives superficial answers."

Others said they found Bush's description of America's best qualities helpful in fleshing out their image of a nation they do not know well. "Chinese people don't really understand the United States, and we only know America through the movies, and it's mainly about violence and the dark side," said Wu Zezhong, a 22-year-old law graduate from Yantai University in East China's Shandong province. "We don't know about democracy. His speech is somewhat helpful to let Chinese people get a little better understanding of America."

Before his address, Bush was introduced by one of Qinghua's most illustrious graduates, Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao, who is expected to take over as general secretary of the Communist Party in the fall.

Hu will meet this year in Washington with Vice President Dick Cheney. Hu and Bush were expected to meet briefly in private.

Bush was to have lunch at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership's walled compound, then visit the Great Wall before leaving.

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