Bush urges China to do more in terms of religious freedom and trade
In his first public event, US President attends a religious service.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – After attending a Sunday mass service in a Beijing Protestant church, US President George W. Bush met his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao. In his talks with the Chinese President, Bush said China should do more in terms of religious freedom and dissidents' rights. He also urged China to take steps to reduce its huge trade surplus with the US.

For his part, Hu Jintao pledged to solve some economic issues that have cause frictions between the two countries.

As Bush started his visit, word spread that Beijing was buying 70 Boeing 737 planes.

The summit between the two leaders took place in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, but Bush's first public event of the day was to attend with his wife Laura a 7:30 am religious service at Gangwashi Church,

It was Bush's way of nudging Chinese leaders to expand religious freedom to the communist nation's 1.3 billion people.

Established in 1922, the Gangwashi church was rebuilt in 2004. For some days now, the Xisi neighbourhood in which the church is located was under tight security.

When he entered the church Bush received a standing ovation from the 700 worshippers attending the service.

At the end of the service, Bush wrote in the church's guest book "May God bless the Christians of China." Under the president's inscription, the first lady wrote: "And with love and respect, Laura Bush."

Yu Xinli, president of the Beijing Christian Council, and Pastor Du Fengying presented Bush with a Bible in Chinese and English.

The church Bush visited is government-sponsored.

Officially, China has 15 million Protestant followers. However, others put the number of Protestant groups and sects at anywhere between 50 and 80 million. Most of them worship in home, i.e. illegal churches, and are subject to harassment and arrest. Their religious material is often confiscated and their places of worship, destroyed. Today, many prayed for Bush in Beijing's underground churches.

Standing alongside Hu, Bush said that "[i]t is important that social, political and religious freedoms grow in China. We encourage China to continue making a historic transition to greater freedom".

US administration sources said that the US leader also urged Hu to meet exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. President Bush told reporters that he has advised Chinese authorities to open dialogues with the Vatican.

On the economic front, the US President asked Mr Hu to find ways to reduce China's trade surplus with the US, which could top US$ 200 billion this year. He urged him to open China's market to US farm products and manufactured goods; to protect intellectual property rights and fight the widespread piracy of American goods ranging from movies and software to books and other goods; to revalue the yuan, which according to US economists is 40 per cent below its real value, so as to make US goods more competitive.

Mr Hu said he would act but did not provide any specifics as to what and how. Word spread however that at least one positive move on trade was made—an agreement by China to buy 70 Boeing 737s in a deal worth US$ 5 billion.

Bush invited Hu to visit the White House next spring. The Chinese president was scheduled to visit the US in September, but had to cancel the trip because of hurricane Katrina.