Bush dedicates new massive U.S. embassy in Beijing

Friday, August 8, 2008

BEIJING -- President Bush dedicated the massive new $434 million U.S. embassy in Beijing today, calling it a symbol of deepening ties between the two trading partners and sometimes political rivals.

Bush, in Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and cheer on U.S. athletes, said the eight-story structure represented the "solid foundation underpinning" relations between the two countries and a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.

"To me it speaks of the importance of our relations with China," Bush said.

Bush's Olympic odyssey, however, started with a game of political one-upmanship, as his blunt critique of the host country prompted China to warn the U.S. president to stop meddling in its business. The dustup over human rights unfolded just as Bush arrived in Beijing with hopes that the summer games would be all he has ever expected from them: a spirited sporting event devoid of politics.

Yet the White House also knew it would draw China's ire by challenging its crackdown on human rights. The rhetorical barbs were likely to recede quickly as the games began. He lauded China at the embassy dedication ceremony.

"The Olympic torch will light the home of an ancient civilization with a grand history," Bush said . "Thousands of years ago the Chinese people developed a common language and unified a great nation. China became the center for art and literature and commerce and philosophy. China advanced the frontiers of knowledge in medicine, astronomy, navigation, engineering and many other fields."

The new American embassy in Beijing is the second largest in the world, after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad. The 500,000-square-foot structure, situated on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication follows China's unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. The 250,000-square-foot glass and limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The president attended the dedication of the embassy with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who in the 1970s served as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China. Also in attendance was Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

The former president reminisced about his days in the Chinese capital when young George W. Bush rode a bicycle around the city. He said he was feeling sentimental that his old office would now be occupied by translators. The elder Bush said his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, quipped: "You mean they got someone in your office who can speak the language?"

Bush, a president who speaks fluent sports, hopes to go bike riding again on Beijing's trails. He joked that he contemplated entering in Olympic bike events, but that his wife, first lady Laura Bush, reminded him that "they don't give any medals for last place."

The president has carved out time to watch Olympic basketball, baseball and more. But his rebuke of how China stifles free speech and religion -- unveiled by the White House on Wednesday, then delivered in a speech Thursday by Bush -- kicked up controversy. It is the matter that has dogged the Beijing Games: China's treatment of its own people.

And the president repeated his message at the embassy, saying, "We'll continue to be candid that all people should be free to say what they think as worship as they choose." He said the U.S. will continue to support China in the path toward a free economy.

After Bush said the United States firmly opposed China's repression, the Chinese government used virtually the same language to describe what it considers Bush's intrusions.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang admonished Bush, saying "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues." He also said the Chinese government is dedicated to promoting basic rights, and that "Chinese citizens have freedom of religion.These are indisputable facts."

The U.S. trip to China also got off to a bumpy start when a charter airplane carrying the White House press corps was detained for nearly three hours Friday at Beijing's international airport not long after Bush arrived to attend the Games. The flight crew was told the Chinese were insisting that all luggage be inspected. Typically, reporters, photographers and camera crews are able to get off the White House press charter right after landing, board buses and head to their hotels and work areas while U.S. State Department officials process immigration and customs details.

Politics, at least peripherally, have always been part of the Olympics. This time, too.

Bush's presence is a precedent. He will be the first U.S. president to ever attend an Olympics on foreign soil when he soaks up the splendor of Friday's opening ceremony.

Bush will meet the president of the International Olympic Committee later in the day, and then members of the U.S. Olympic Team for a presidential pep talk. At night comes the elaborate opening ceremony. Tickets are hard to come by, unless you're a president.

Over the weekend, Bush on Saturday will meet with Olympic sponsors and watch women's basketball. He and family members with him will likely choose other events to attend.

On Sunday, he will attend a Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, the same practice he followed during his last visit to China in 2005. He then plans to take in some men's and women's Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon. Bush will meet with Chinese President Hu Jinato at his presidential compound, and then hold sessions with China's vice president and premier. Then its back to sports on Sunday night: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game.

On Monday, the president will attend a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China. He is expected to add in other sporting events before flying back to Washington that day.

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