BEIJING, August 7, 2008 — -- China reacted angrily to harsh words on human rights delivered by President Bushtoday, just hours before Bush arrived in Beijing to attend the Olympics.
In addition to the testy exchange with Bush, the day before the opening ceremony saw more protesters arrested and the smog the Chinese promised to curb before the Games still hanging over the city.
The haze may be a metaphor for the controversy that has dogged China throughout the seven-year, multi-billion-dollar effort to host the Games, which Beijing hopes will mark the country's arrival on the world stage.
Bush, in remarks in Bangkok, Thailand, before his arrival in Beijing, voiced "firm opposition" to China's continued detention of dissidents. "The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings," Bush said.
The Chinese government issued a response, saying that it "puts people first, and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens' basic rights and freedom."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China advocates discussions on differing views on human rights and religions on "a basis of mutual respect and equality."
As for Bush's remarks, Qin's statement warned, "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries' internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues.
Bush will meet Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday.
Over the past week, over 80 heads of state and government have descended on Beijing, the most to attend any Games ever. Other heads of state attending the games, in addition to Bush, include Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli President Shimon Peres. All plan to attend the opening ceremony Friday.
But one head of state has had to pull out at the last minute. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is embroiled in an impeachment controversy at home, won't be attending the Games. The Pakistan Foreign Ministry today confirmed that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani will attend opening ceremonies instead.
With approximately 24 hours to go before the Opening Ceremony, Beijing is still battling visibly polluted skies and facing a continuous stream of human rights complaints from all directions.
Journalists walking along the south side of Olympic Park this afternoon squinted to view the latticed steel of the Bird's Nest, known as the National Stadium, as it blended in with a thick blanket of gray fog.
Today, the air pollution index, which ranges from zero to 500, hovered at 100. According to Beijing standards, the city is "lightly polluted." By contrast, the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department labels this level of pollution "very high."
As athletes arrive and train in Olympic facilities, the murky air is a constant reminder of one of Beijing's major weaknesses. However, nine-time U.S. Olympic Champion Carl Lewis believes the situation has been blown out of proportion.
"I think it's an issue that's not going to affect the athletes because they're all in the same situation," the retired track and field star told ABC News. "There may be some that are affected more but I don't think so."
"When the athletes get out there," said Lewis. "It could be a torrential rain and they'll be like, 'It's the Olympics, get out of my way.'"
Athletes won't be the only ones hoping to set records in Beijing. The Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) will set several of its own.
Beijing will host the largest Games in Olympic history, with 205 national teams, 16,000 athletes, and an estimated 30,000 members of the media in attendance. Today, McDonald's opened their biggest freestanding restaurant in the world on the Olympic Green. The location, which is temporary, can seat up to 1,015 customers at a time.
When Team China marches into the opening ceremony tomorrow evening , the most expensive Olympic debut at $300 million, they will be led by the tallest Olympic flag bearer, the 7-foot six-inch basketball star Yao Ming. A Sudanese turned American, Lopez Lamong, will carry the flag for the U.S., his adopted country.
One honored guest in town this week is providing a gentle reminder that relations between the United States and China are merely three decades old. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who planned the normalization of relations between the United States and China in the early 1970s, is in Beijing to attend the Olympics with his family.
Kissinger made his first visit to China in July 1971, in a diplomatic trip shrouded in secrecy. "Over 30 years ago, when I first visited China, I would never have imagined that the day would come that the Olympic Games would be held in China," Kissinger said in a speech at Peking University on Tuesday.
The landscapes in Beijing have certainly morphed dramatically since Kissinger's first visit.
Foreign protestors against China's human rights record and lack of religious freedom have made themselves heard again this morning in Tiananmen Square.
Plainclothes security officials removed three Christian activists today after they attempted to demonstrate for religious freedom in Tiananmen Square. The three Americans were taken away shortly after they started a news conference and conducted a brief prayer vigil outside of the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall.
"We have come here today to speak out against the human rights abuses of the Chinese government," Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, told a small group of foreign reporters on the square today.
Yesterday, this group briefly protested against China's population control policies and forced abortions in Tiananmen Square until they were escorted away by police.
Christine Brennan, sports author and Olympics expert, said while "very good things that are being done here in the name of the Olympic games, in terms of organization, facilities," the unrest and controversies are natural elements of the Games.
"The world needs to note that, this is a sporting event, yes, but it's much more than that," Brennan told ABC News.
"The IOC gave China the greatest gift it could possibly give, the Olympic Games, and with that gift, the Chinese have used it to crack down even more on people who are speaking out and as a free society. It's reprehensible."
But on a more positive note for China, the Olympic torch arrived without incident in Beijing, where it will be carried by a host of Chinese celebrities, including NBA basketball star Yao Ming, China's most famous athlete.
As for the polluted air in Beijing, Carl Lewis urged perspective.
"The good thing about [controversy] is?everybody gets a chance to see it. [China has] to deal with the issue, they can't just sweep it under the rug," Lewis said. "The world knows. So how are they gonna deal with it?"
And for fans he said, "Don't stay home for the dance. Go there and be the best dancer. The Olympics is the biggest dance in the world to be the best dancer, because everyone's going to take pictures."
The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.