After returning from a trip to South America that was widely characterized as a failure, President George W. Bush tried a new tactic. For his weeklong swing through Asia, he adopted a role that paid dividends for his predecessor--the President as tourist. Bush had always resisted sightseeing, spending just seven minutes touring the Kremlin, for instance. But last week his itinerary bristled with excursions outside official halls. The stops had a theme: he made a series of leisurely visits to religious sites, including a gold-leafed Buddhist temple in Japan and an ancient Korean pagoda. White House officials tell TIME that the National Security Council included those stops so Bush could show an appreciation for Asian culture and give the U.S. a calling card besides troop requests and military bases.
But when the President sat in the front row of a grubby Beijing church on Sunday, his tour took on a deeper and more forceful significance. China has a long and unsavory history of restricting the religious rights of its citizens. In the church guest book, Bush took up most of a page to scrawl, "May God bless the Christians of China."
Before he arrived in China, the President took some swipes at Beijing. Giving a speech in Japan on what aides call his "freedom agenda" for Asia, he lauded Taiwan for democratic advances and urged mainland China to yield to citizens who want to "worship without state control." The salvo might have been less brazen than when Bill Clinton in 1998 reprimanded then President Jiang Zemin on live TV in Beijing for "the use of force" at Tiananmen Square. But Bush's gesture no doubt delighted his conservative base. After the service, he stood outside the church with his arm around the female minister who had just delivered a sermon on loving one's oppressor. Joined by Laura Bush and U.S. evangelist Luis Palau--and a smiling choir to boot--Bush insisted that the Chinese government "not fear Christians." The President, often portrayed abroad as an arrogant Texan bully, had found a more appealing niche: a sightseer with a higher purpose.