U.S. President George W. Bush prodded China on Wednesday to grant more political freedom to its 1.3 billion people and held up archrival Taiwan as a society that successfully moved from repression to democracy as it opened its economy. In remarks sure to rile Beijing, Bush suggested China should follow Taiwan's path.
"Modern Taiwan is free and democratic and prosperous. By embracing freedom at all levels, Taiwan has delivered prosperity to its people and created a free and democratic Chinese society," the president said.
He delivered that message to China both in a speech and in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, an unflinching ally despite the president's record-low popularity and mounting problems at home. Koizumi supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and made an unpopular decision to send noncombat troops there in January 2004.
That mission expires next month, and Koizumi was noncommittal about whether he would extend it. Bush did not press Koizumi publicly about the troops, saying it was a decision for Japan's government.
The two leaders reaffirmed their united stand about North Korea's nuclear weapons program, demanding that it be verifiably dismantled. Ahead of a weekend visit to Beijing, Bush bluntly urged China to grant more freedom.
"What I say to the Chinese, as well as to others, is that a free society is in your interest," Bush said. "To allow people to worship freely, for example, in your society is part of a stable, mature society. And that leadership should not fear freedoms within their society."
Bush and Koizumi praised each other and glossed over lingering problems, such as Japan's ban on U.S. beef imports. Tokyo is moving closer to easing the ban. The two leaders also acknowledged unhappiness by many in Okinawa about a new agreement to realign America's military presence in Japan. Koizumi said he hoped opponents would rethink their opposition, and Bush said it was a matter for the prime minister and the people of Japan.
Japan was the first stop on a journey that also will take Bush to South Korea, China and Mongolia.
In his prepared speech, Bush said that China's economic growth must be accompanied by more freedoms for its people.
"As China reforms its economy," the president said, "its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed. As the people of China grow in prosperity, their demands for political freedom will grow as well."
Bush also lectured China about opening its economy to foreign competition to narrow the expected $200 billion (Ђ171.42 billion) trade surplus with the United States. "China needs to provide a level playing field for American businesses seeking access to China's market," Bush said. Further, he said, China must fulfill its promise to move toward a more market-based currency.
China's foreign minister brushed off Bush's comments about Taiwan and political freedoms.
"We have to work hard and not pay attention to those people who talk about this or that, upsetting our sense of self, especially when it comes to our love of the motherland," Li Zhaoxing told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of Pacific Rim economies in South Korea. Without mentioning Taiwan directly, Li said all people in the greater China region "can work well together to preserve stability and achieve prosperity," he said.
In separate remarks shown on Hong Kong Cable TV, Li also defended China's human rights record, saying "everything we do is for improving the people's livelihood, that includes guaranteeing the people's material rights, political rights and cultural and education rights and democratic development rights, and so on."
Bush's warm words about Taiwan could chill his reception in Beijing later this week when the president, to make a point about religious freedom, also plans to worship at one of five officially recognized Protestant churches in the city.
Bush said Chinese President Hu Jintao has asserted that his vision of "peaceful development" will make the Chinese people more prosperous.
"I have pointed out that the people of China want more freedom to express themselves ... to worship without state control ... and to print Bibles and other sacred texts without state control," Bush said.
By talking about Taiwan, Bush was raising an issue that has been a major U.S.-Chinese irritant.
Taiwan, 100 miles (160 kilometers) off China's southern coast, split from the mainland when nationalist leaders fled there in 1949 during China's civil war. Since then, Beijing has threatened repeatedly to use force against the self-governed island that China claims as its own.
The island has had de facto independence for more than 50 years, largely because of American support. U.S. officials were taken aback when a Chinese general said last July that Beijing might respond with nuclear weapons if the U.S. were to attack China in a conflict over Taiwan. Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, a dean at China's National Defense University, said that was his personal view and not government policy, reports the AP. I.L.