WASHINGTON — US President George W. Bush, in a move likely to anger China, met with five Chinese dissidents here and told them he would take a "message of freedom" to next month's Olympic Games in Beijing.
"President Bush met with five Chinese freedom activists to discuss his concerns about human rights in China," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement Tuesday.
"The president assured them that he will carry the message of freedom as he travels to Beijing for the games, just as he has regularly made this a priority in all of his meetings with Chinese officials," she said.
Perino said Bush met with Harry Wu, Wei Jingsheng, Rebiya Kadeer, Sasha Gong and Bob Fu. The meeting was held at the White House residence instead of the Oval Office, out of sight of cameras and the White House only revealed the meeting in a statement after it was over.
Bush "told the activists that engagement with Chinese leaders gives him an opportunity to make the United States' position clear -- human rights and religious freedom should not be denied to anyone," the White House spokeswoman said.
"The president asked them about their personal experiences in their peaceful efforts to press for more freedom in China," she said.
Perino said the five "welcomed the president's strong commitment to human rights and religious freedom and urged him to continue to deliver that message not only to the Chinese leadership but also to all the people of China."
The White House said Bush also "dropped by" a meeting on Tuesday between his National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
"The president reviewed current bilateral relations with the foreign minister; as well as his desire to see a successful Olympics, and noted that this presents the Chinese with an opportunity to demonstrate compassion on human rights and freedom," Perino said.
Bush will attend the August 8 opening ceremonies of the games, having rejected human rights activists' appeals for him to boycott the gala in protest over China's overall rights record, including a crackdown in Tibet in March.
Bush has walked a diplomatic tightrope over the Olympics, repeatedly insisting the games are not a political venue while recently stepping up his public criticism of Beijing's rights record.
US lawmakers have called on Bush to make a "strong public statement" in Beijing on China's human rights situation and meet with families of jailed "prisoners of conscience."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the weekend that while China dealt with security threats in the runup to the Olympics, it should avoid using them as "a cover" to muzzle political dissent.
Rice, who will lead the US delegation to the Games' August 24 closing ceremony, said China "should showcase not just the Olympics but an attitude of openness and tolerance."
Harry Wu spent nearly 20 years in Chinese labor camps and is now a human rights activist living in the United States. He has testified before the US Congress on the use of slave labor in China.
Wei Jingsheng served 18 years in prison in China because of his writings against the communist authorities and has lived in the United States since 1997.
Rebiya Kadeer is a leader of the Uighur community, the largest and overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic group in the Xinjiang region, who joined her US-based husband in 2005 after six years in a Chinese prison.
Sasha Gong is a scholar and writer who has worked as a broadcaster with Radio Free Asia.
Bob Fu is a former leader of the student democracy movement in Beijing. He was jailed briefly before fleeing China in the 1990s and is now a human rights activist in the United States.