Leading article: The Bush sermon and a missed opportunity

Here was the leader of the Western world daring to do what his timorous counter- parts in Europe seem so fearful of even contemplating; ruffling the feathers of China's prickly leadership over the question of human rights.

It made a glaring contrast to our own Government's approach, which is to muffle the sound of protesters reaching the ears of China's leaders each time one of them has visited Britain, diverting any complaints on the subject by suggesting the topic of rights is best left to private discussions.

The Bushes, on the other hand, went out of their way to show support for China's embattled Christians, writing "God bless" in the church guest book, posing on the steps with the minister and choir and telling reporters that a healthy society "is a society that welcomes all faiths". Ouch!

But while most of us, whether or not we are Christian believers, can surely be glad that the Chinese Church has received an acknowledgement from such a powerful friend after years in the dark, it has to be said that the Bushes have made their human rights pitch too narrow.

By confining his show of support to evangelical Christians who by no means these days are the worst victims of China's almost casual authoritarianism, the American President has actually weakened his claim to care about human rights in general.

If churches do still face bureaucratic hurdles and petty obstructions from the Beijing's legendary bureaucracy, they are not up against annihilation as a nation. That, if anyone needs reminding, is the fate hanging over the Tibetans and Uighurs in China's sparsely inhabited west, who for years have been the target of a deliberate and cruel policy of Han Chinese colonisation.

It is also depressing that President Bush made no equivalently bold references in Beijing to Chinese opponents of the one-party regime, or to any of the brave democracy campaigners in a country where the rush to free up markets has yet to be accompanied by any similar rush to free up politics.

No one should begrudge the churches for getting their pat on the head. But it is hard not to conclude that Mr Bush's "cry freedom" talk was aimed at least partly at a domestic audience of evangelical Christians, at a time when his ratings in the US have fallen. To some extent, therefore, Mr Bush's visit to China has been a missed opportunity.

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