(CNSNews.com) - Three days before visiting China, President Bush Wednesday urged the country's communist rulers to follow Japan, South Korea and Taiwan -- Beijing's nemesis -- by embracing democracy.
Speaking in Japan, Bush said China should allow its people more freedoms, including the right "to worship without state control and to print Bibles and other sacred texts without fear of punishment."
"By meeting the legitimate demands of its citizens for freedom and openness, China's leaders can help their country grow into a modern, prosperous, and confident nation," he said in a speech which also touched on terrorism, free trade, avian flu, expanding energy needs and climate change.
Just last week, a Beijing court sentenced a Protestant church leader to three years' imprisonment for illegally printing Bibles and other Christian literature. Religious freedom campaigners have urged Bush to bring up religious persecution in face-to-face talks with Chinese leaders this weekend.
The president is on the first leg of a four-nation Asian visit, his first trip to the region since his re-election.
Spreading democracy in the Middle East has been a key theme during the first year of his second term, and Wednesday's speech in Japan's historic former capital, Kyoto, focused on freedom's growth in Asia.
He recalled that at the end of World War II, Australia and New Zealand were the only democracies in the region. Since then, freedom had spread, he said, highlighting its successes in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
"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."
Bush urged the mainland to follow suit.
"We encourage China to continue down the road of reform and openness because the freer China is at home, the greater the welcome it will receive abroad."
He quoted the Chinese thinker Confucius, who had written thousands of years before Jefferson and Lincoln: "The people should be cherished, the people are the root of a country; the root firm, the country is tranquil."
"Today the people of Asia have made their desire for freedom clear and that their countries will only be tranquil when they are led by governments of, by, and for the people," the president said.
Beijing is likely to be irked by Bush's direct comparison between Taiwan and China - which he said was moving toward more openness but had "not yet completed the journey."
China considers the island democracy a renegade province and is highly sensitive to anything it deems as interference in its "internal affairs."
Bush reiterated that Washington's "one China" policy remains in place. Under the policy, the U.S. does not support independence for Taiwan, but is at the same time committed by law to helping the island defend itself against unprovoked aggression.
China as responsible world citizen
In his speech, Bush also spoke about China's potential to "play a positive role in the world."
This appears to be in line with a new policy theme which featured in a major speech by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick last September.
The U.S. had for decades worked to integrate Beijing into the international system, Zoellick said, and it was now time to urge a rising China to become "a responsible stakeholder" in that system, for instance using its considerable influence with rogue states like Sudan, Iran and North Korea.
Analysts say China has been "obsessed" by the speech over the weeks since, with officials and academics discussing and debating the text and its implications.
"Ultimately, Washington's offer calls for a sea change in China's international policies," the Texas-based intelligence analysis firm Stratfor said last week.
"But the decision not to accept Zoellick's suggestions could lead to increased U.S. pressure on China, ranging from economic pressure to calls for social and political change."
Stratfor said Chinese President Hu Jintao would likely raise the issue during Bush's visit.
Also Wednesday, Bush held talks with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whom the president in his speech called "one of my best friends in the international community."
From Japan, Bush was to fly to South Korea for talks with President Roh Moo Hyun and to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum leaders' meeting, before traveling on to China and then Mongolia.
See earlier story:
Religious Persecution Spotlighted Ahead of Bush's China Visit (Nov. 10, 2005)
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