China's government is playing down an editorial in an official newspaper that slammed President Bush's foreign policy on the eve of U.S. elections. The opinion article, written by China's former foreign minister, prompted U.S. officials to request a clarification.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Zhang Qiyue, was peppered with questions from foreign reporters about Monday's official media criticism of President Bush's foreign policy.

In an unusually harsh commentary published Monday, former foreign minister and vice premier Qian Qichen condemned the so-called "Bush doctrine" which he said is based on threats and the use of force. Mr. Qian said the U.S.-led war on Iraq has destroyed a hard-won global anti-terror coalition and set off numerous ethnic and religious conflicts. It did not mention U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry.

U.S. officials normally disregard such criticism from foreign governments, but on Monday made an exception. The State Department said the remarks ran counter to Chinese policy as expressed to Secretary of State Colin Powell last week during his visit to China.

Ms. Zhang sought to distance the Chinese government from the commentary, which was published in the China Daily, China's most prominent state-controlled English language newspaper.

"Mr. Qian Qichen was not interviewed by the China Daily or other media. He did not write any essays for the China Daily or other media," she said.

Mr. Qian currently holds no official post, but is widely regarded as influential in charting China's foreign policy.

The China Daily, like other state-run newspapers, is tightly controlled by the Communist leadership. Analysts say it would be unprecedented for any dissenting views to be published. David Zweig is a professor of politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"Qian Qichen is a pretty important spokesperson on foreign policy and publishing in the China Daily would suggest that it has gotten pretty high-level approval," he said. "One would assume that it would not be written without the agreement of the standing committee of the politburo, or the leader of the country."

Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue responded angrily when a reporter asked her if the Chinese government was embarrassed by Mr. Qian's commentary.

"We have 8,000 magazines and 2,000 newspapers. Every day they publish many articles. As government and foreign ministry spokespeople, we can not really be able to read every article," said Zhang Qiyue.

The Chinese spokeswoman says her government has responded to the U.S. request for clarification, but gave no details of what the explanation is. She says both sides remain in communication over the matter.