Bush scolds China on rights day before Games

Just hours before flying to Beijing for the Olympics today, US President George Bush used some of his bluntest language yet in publicly pressing China to improve its human rights record.

In a speech in Bangkok on the eve of the Games' opening ceremony, when the eyes of the world will be on Beijing, Bush voiced "firm opposition" to China's detention of dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists.

"The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings," he said in comments likely to anger China's communist leadership.

"We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labour rights not to antagonise China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential," he said.

Beijing is accused of cracking down on dissent ahead of the Games instead of granting more freedoms, as originally promised.

Bush had faced criticism from rights groups not only for attending the Games but also for not speaking out more forcefully against Beijing's crackdown in the run-up to the showpiece event.

He has chided China on human rights before, focusing especially on restrictions on religious freedom, and drew the Chinese government's ire by meeting dissidents at the White House ahead of his week-long farewell trip to East Asia.

Bush made clear in Seoul yesterday he had no intention of using the Olympics as a platform for lecturing China on human rights, though he intends to discuss such matters privately with President Hu Jintao.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang defended China's rights record, saying people enjoyed a range of freedoms, including freedom of religion, but added a warning too.

"We resolutely oppose any words or actions which interfere in the internal affairs of another country in the name of issues such as human rights and religion," he said in a statement on the ministry's website.

In a wide-ranging speech billed as an Asia policy statement, Bush touched on everything from North Korea's nuclear programme, to regional security and trans-Pacific trade.

While acknowledging China's growing economic clout, he also said Beijing should wake up to the wider responsibilities that that entails.

"We are making clear to China that being a global economic leader carries with it the duty to act responsibly on matters from energy to the environment to development in places like Africa," he said.

Another focus of Bush's visit to Thailand is neighbouring Burma, which is under heavy US sanctions to try to bring an end to 46 years of unbroken military rule.

"The American people care deeply about the people of Burma and dream for the day the people will be free," he told dissidents and former political prisoners at an hour-long lunch.

Bush heard criticism of Washington's stance towards Burma - labelled an "outpost of tyranny" by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - for forcing the generals into the international isolation that junta supremo Than Shwe craves.

"I asked him to engage with the Burmese military," former student activist Aung Naing Oo, who fled a brutally crushed pro-democracy uprising 20 years ago, told Reuters.

"It's only Than Shwe and a few other generals who want to isolate Burma, so I told him engagement was very important," he said.

Bush also reiterated his call for the release of detained opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, although like his countless other pleas, it is almost certain to fall on deaf ears.