What to make of the media’s coverage of President Bush’s visit to China? Keeping track of the unraveling battle between the Catholic Church and the Chinese government is a job unto itself, but when the Leader of the Free World stops by for the weekend, the stories become all the more numerous and compelling.
Appropriately, The Washington Post‘s Peter Baker and Philip P. Pan lead with Bush’s Sunday morning church service. It actually was a nice piece to wake up to Sunday morning:
BEIJING, Nov. 20 — President Bush challenged China’s repression of religion Sunday as he opened a diplomatically sensitive visit here, but he kept most of his focus on an economic and security agenda that included a multibillion-dollar sale of U.S.-built airplanes.
In his first public appearance, even before the welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, Bush attended a service at a state-sanctioned Protestant church to send a message about free expression of faith in a country that harshly smothers it. The president has been offended by the recent harassment of religious people trying to practice their faith without state approval at underground churches, aides said.
“My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly,” the president told reporters outside Gangwashi Church, a modest brick building and one of a handful of official Protestant churches in Beijing. “A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths.”
Somehow, despite the church-service lead, I feel that this story belongs on the business page because that is the primary reason for the Bush-to-China trip, and where the real news is being made.
As you will read in this piece, China’s state television gets to define the trip for the billions of Chinese with what amounts to a mountain biking stunt by Bush (sound like a familiar strategy in the U.S.?) and the White House promotes that church-going image of Bush for his religious base in the States.
But it’s all business business business.
In making his appeal for greater religious freedom, Bush was careful to avoid provocative language and planned to spend the rest of his visit talking about trade and nuclear nonproliferation issues. As the president flew to Beijing on Saturday night, a top White House official aboard Air Force One disclosed that China planned to sign a deal Sunday to purchase 70 jetliners from Boeing Corp., a sale he called vindication of the administration’s nuanced approach to relations with China.
To establish the friendly tone of the visit here, the third of Bush’s presidency, the White House arranged for Bush to go mountain biking Sunday with China’s Olympic athletes, an event that aides said they assumed would be widely shown on state television and become the defining image of the trip. The idea, they said, was to signal directly to the Chinese people that no matter what they hear from their government, Bush is not hostile toward their country.
As many of you will remember, the first President Bush and Bill Clinton attended services in China, so these business trips to China are nothing new to American presidents. According to several reports, Bush did make more of an effort to address the lack of religious liberties in China, but in this case, business still managed to dominate the issues and the news.