A few days ago I made a post about the mixed signals China often gives us about its human rights picture, especially in relation to Christian persecution. While in many ways the situation has drastically improved, the sterilized and whitewashed view of China that the government would like us to see at the Olympics has not erased the all-too-obvious blots on the its recent record.
That said, President Bush has a difficult tight-rope to walk in attending this week's Olympic opening ceremonies. Ironically, in a country where Buddhism thrives, Bush has had to take a sort of "middle way" of his own.
The balancing act he'll undertake is typical and necessary in dealing with the Chinese conundrum. The leader of the free world has said repeatedly that he will not stop urging the government to use the Olympics and events beyond as a chance to recognize the religious rights of all its citizens. At the same time, he's come under fire from some human rights activists and even the highest officials of the Democratic Party, who believe he should've boycotted the games altogether.
Somewhere on the line the president is straddling is the right approach. A conciliatory tone toward the government would be deadly to his legitimacy as an advocate for China's persecuted Christians and a step back from the tough line he's already taken. Antagonistic rhetoric could lead him into an equally undesirable quagmire. The Chinese authorities would suffer serious embarassment if Bush were to insult their progress on the eve of their big party. As anyone who knows anything about Chinese culture knows, it's hard to gain the trust of someone there when you've made them lose face.
For all the fiery comments by the Democrats during the primary season, Bush has taken the right tack. He stuck it to the Chinese government when he awarded a congressional medal to the Dalai Lama last October, despite their childish insults and noisy opposition to the gesture. The action turned out to foreshadow of a much more intense conflict that would break out in March of this year, when violent acts of vandalism committed by Tibetans against Han Chinese in the province escalated into weeks of protests and subsequent crackdowns by the government in western China.
On July 29, a little more than a week before Air Force One is scheduled to touch down in Beijing, Bush made another very crafty move. He hosted five high-profile human rights activists at the White House. Among these were Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in a Chinese labor camp; Rebiya Kadeer, the foremost activist in the U.S. for the Muslim Turkic Uighur people in China; Bob Fu, a former persecuted pastor and head of China Aid Association; Wei Jingsheng, a prominent political dissident and Sasha Gong, a dissident and writer.
Bush's message was clear. “These are very high profile people. These are people designed to get the Chinese’s attention. It was not just a political move to provide cover at home. It was an important move to let Chinese leaders know that he’s not satisfied with the progress,” the New York Times quotes Michael Green, an Asia expert and former White House adviser as saying.
Christian activists are urging Bush to do even more during his trip. In a conference call Tuesday night, Bob Fu of China Aid and Todd Nettleton, director of media development for Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian group that ministers to the persecuted church, both urged Bush to attend a unregistered house church while in China. Mr. Fu gave Mr. Bush "Pray for China" bracelets during the meeting at the White House and gave the president coordinates of four different house churches in Beijing where Fu assured him he would be welcomed.
Bush attended a registered church during a 2005 trip to China and held a press conference afterwards. Fu said a return visit to the government-sanctioned church could be seen by some as validating the Chinese government's policies of hosting religion on its own terms. This would be disheartening to see for pastors who have been ousted from Beijing to keep them from talking to foreign media during the games, Fu said.
Some 80 percent of Chinese Christians worship in house churches, he added.
"By choosing to worship in a government-sanctioned church again, it will further validate" the government's stance on persecution, Fu told listeners from around the world who had tuned in for a Webcast and conference call with Charisma magazine. Listen here to the complete interview. You might have to log in or return to the Web site at a later time.
It remains to be seen what the president's legacy will be with regard to China. However it turns out, he's taken as right an approach as his position and its many responsibilities will allow.
Photo: A gate in the Forbidden City. Beijing. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2006.