Slow road to Chinese reform

Bush makes limited progress on `freedom agenda' during visit


BEIJING -- After a two-day visit to China billed as an opportunity to advance his second-term goal of spreading freedom, President Bush left the country today amid questions over how aggressively he pressed the matter.

Before the trip, expectations among human rights advocates were high because Bush had scheduled an appearance at a Beijing church, had challenged China to open its society during a speech last week in Japan, and had hosted the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing perceives as a threat, at the White House.

But setbacks began days before Bush's arrival, when Chinese authorities apparently forced several high-profile dissidents to leave the capital in an effort to prevent negative publicity. Also, unlike past U.S.-China summits that have resulted in the release of some political prisoners, no such releases occurred this time. And U.S. officials apparently failed to persuade Beijing to air all aspects of Bush's trip, particularly the church stop, on state-controlled news media.

"We all understand that a system that is open and competitive politically is one that is moving toward democracy," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after Bush's meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders. "And there's no question but that China would have a ways to go to meet that test."

Bush's China trip, his third as president, underscored the challenge posed by this country to the "freedom agenda" that is the centerpiece of Bush's second-term foreign policy.

While much smaller countries such as Iraq, Syria and even Myanmar draw intense focus from the Bush administration in its quest to spread democracy, China seems to operate in its own category as a fast-rising world superpower with major economic influence in the U.S. One measure of that is Washington's trade deficit with China, which now approaches $200 billion.

Bush is to invoke his freedom agenda today during a brief stop in Mongolia, a tiny country of 2.8 million people nestled between China and the former Soviet Union.

In China yesterday, Hu proclaimed that his country had achieved "historic progress" in democratic reforms and human rights. Standing beside Bush in the Great Hall of the People flanking Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 student protests, Hu said the Chinese now exercise "their right of democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic management and democratic supervision."

But the Chinese president offered no details and did not mention the roundup of political dissidents, or his country's continued efforts to crack down on public dissent and religious freedom.

Bush's appearance at a Protestant church underscored his support for religious freedom. He stood beside this communist nation's president and called it important that "social, political and religious freedoms grow in China."

But Bush did not confront Hu with a list of imprisoned dissidents -- a list the U.S. government frequently raises with the Chinese government.

Peter Wallsten and Mark Magnier write for the Los Angeles Times.

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