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Bush speaks of free expression at U.S. Embassy dedication

  • Story Highlights
  • Chinese spokesman says it's "well known" that Chinese enjoy freedom
  • President Bush cites concerns over religious freedom and human rights in China
  • Bush urges China to act responsibly on energy, environment, African development
  • He praises "constructive relationship" between U.S. and China in trade, diplomacy

(CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush cut the ribbon Friday on the massive new U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, and said societies that allow free expression tend to be more prosperous.

The president attended the dedication of the 600,000-square-foot embassy with his father, former President George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush once served as U.S. ambassador to China.

After joking about how he would not "predict medal counts," Bush made some measured remarks. "All people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose," he said.

Bush said he has tried to foster "trust" between China and the United States and that the two countries had "built a strong relationship built on common interests."

"America will continue to support China on the path toward a free economy," Bush added.

In a speech on Asian policy delivered in Bangkok, Thailand, on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bush chided China over its record of religious freedom and human rights.

"America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists," Bush said during that trip.

"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," he said. "And we press for openness and justice not to impose our beliefs but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs." VideoWatch President Bush speak at the dedication of the embassy »

Despite the critique, Bush praised what has become a "constructive relationship" between the United States and China in trade and diplomacy. He also said the association "has placed America in a better position to be honest and direct on other issues."

On Thursday, China said it is committed to its citizens' "basic rights and freedoms" and criticized Bush for meddling in what Beijing says are its internal affairs.

"We firmly oppose any statements or deeds which use human rights, religion and other issues to interfere with the internal affairs of other countries," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, responding to Bush, who has cited "deep concerns" with China's record on human rights.

Qin Gang said China embraces the concept of putting people's interests first and is devoted to "maintaining and promoting basic rights and freedom of its citizens."

"Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of religion in accordance with the law. These facts are well known. Regarding the Sino-U.S. differences on issues including human rights and religion, we have always insisted on dialogue and communication based on mutual equality and mutual respect, in order to enhance understanding, reduce differences and to expand consensus," he said.

China cracked down on protests this year in Tibet. Some demonstrators advocated autonomy and greater religious freedom, and others sought outright independence from China. VideoWatch pro-Tibet protests »

On Wednesday, four Tibet activists unfurled Tibetan flags and pro-independence banners near National Stadium in Beijing, a main Olympic venue.

Two men in the group scaled electric poles to display the banners, police said, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Police took away "four foreigners" -- three men and a woman, the agency said.

Students for a Free Tibet, a Tibet activist group, issued a statement saying those involved in the demonstration were from the United States and Britain.

According to the group, one of the signs read, "One World, One Dream: Free Tibet" in English, while the second read, "Tibet Will Be Free" in English and "Free Tibet" in Chinese.

The group said the signs were on display for about an hour, but police said it was about 12 minutes. The demonstrators entered China on tourist visas, police said, according to Xinhua.

Meanwhile, the government's reaction to people protesting in northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, home to a Sunni Muslim ethnic minority, also has generated concerns. The Uighurs are supposed to enjoy autonomy, as it is guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution, but some seek independence.

Millions of Han Chinese, the country's dominant ethnic group, have migrated into Xinjiang over the past 60 years, prompting complaints that they dominate local politics, culture and commerce at the Uighurs' expense.

In the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, Chinese paramilitary police beat two Japanese journalists Monday, hours after a deadly attack that killed 16 police officers, journalist groups said.

China also has been criticized for its policies toward Sudan. Critics have said China is backing the African regime, which is accused of gross human rights abuses in a crackdown in the Darfur region. The United States has condemned the campaign of killing in Darfur as genocide.

Team Darfur, a group of international athletes committed to raising awareness about Darfur, complained that former speedskating gold medalist Joey Cheek had his visa revoked by the Chinese Embassy. VideoWatch a report on the revoking of the activist's visa »

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, speaking to reporters en route to Thailand, said, "We were disturbed to learn that the Chinese had refused his visa. We are taking the matter very seriously."

Copyright 2008 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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