Bush vows to press China on rights at Olympics

( AFP ) - US President George W. Bush vowed Thursday that he would be "not the least bit shy" in pressing China on human rights and disputes on Darfur and Myanmar when he attends the Beijing Olympics in August.

But he stopped short of endorsing Olympic athletes' right to publicly express criticism of President Hu Jintao's government, saying every country's Olympic committee would set the rules for their competitors.

"I've made it very clear I'm going to the Olympics because it's a sporting event," Bush told reporters at a White House press conference. "I'm looking forward to seeing the athletic competition."

"But that will not preclude me from meeting with the Chinese president, expressing my deep concerns about a variety of issues, just like I do every time I meet with the president," he stressed.

"A whole society, a healthy society, a confident society is one that recognizes the value of religious freedom. I'll talk about Darfur and Iran and Burma," as Myanmar is called in the United States, said Bush.

Human rights groups and activists have accused China of ramping up a campaign of repression against dissidents to ensure they are silenced during the Games, which are set to run August 8-24.

Beijing has also also come under pressure over its close ties to Myanmar's ruling junta, amid mounting global calls for democratic reforms there; and the government in Khartoum, over the violence in Sudan's Darfur province.

And a former Chinese factory worker who tried to link the issue of human rights to the Olympics was awaiting a verdict after going on trial for alleged subversion.

"I am not the least bit shy bringing up the concerns expressed by this factory worker, and I believe that I'll have an opportunity to do so with the president and at the same time enjoy a great sporting event," said Bush.

Yang Chunlin, whose petition entitled "We want human rights, not the Olympics" attracted more than 10,000 signatures, was tried last week, his lawyer Li Fangping told AFP after the one-day proceedings.

A verdict is expected within days, according to Li.

"Now, maybe I'm in a little different position; others don't have a chance to visit with Hu Jintao, but I do. And every time I meet with him, I talk about religious freedom and the importance of China's society recognizing that if you're allowed to worship freely, it'll benefit the society as a whole, that the Chinese government should not fear the idea of people praying to a god as they see fit," said Bush.

China is one the closest allies of the government in Sudan, which is locked in a years-long proxy war with rebels in Darfur. UN estimates put the death toll at about 200,000, with more than two million driven from their homes.

And Democracy activists called Monday for a boycott on televised coverage of this summer's Olympics in Beijing, in protest at China's support for the ruling military junta in Myanmar.

The Olympics are set to open on August 8, the 20th anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising led by students in Myanmar.

The military, which has ruled the country formerly known as Burma since 1962, opened fire on the crowds, killing an estimated 3,000 people.

Last year, the junta in Yangon brutally quashed a fresh protest movement led by Buddhist monks, drawing international condemnation, and tighter US sanctions.

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