China fences off female invaders

"WELCOME to Tourism Holiday Spot of Huairou and Expect Everything to Turn Out as You Wish," reads the banner above the road where one enters this small town which this week plays host to the largest-ever international gathering of women.

For two women from the Kurdistan Women's Federation who had flown in yesterday morning to attend the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum, things had not yet turned out as they had hoped. "Not very good," was the verdict of Lorin Nasberg. The pair had been assigned accommodation in central Peking, but at the airport had been put on a bus to Huairou, where they had sat for more than two hours surrounded by box-loads of pamphlets and publicity material. "There is no one to help us," she complained.

Behind them, two women from Cameroon, resplendent in African print dresses, were arguing with a Chinese policewoman barring their entrance to the registration centre because they did not have the correct documents. "Come back tomorrow," said the policewoman.

With the first wave of a scheduled 36,000 female participants from around the world now descending on Huairou, the forum organisers are still battling to have everything ready in time for Wednesday's opening. The race began last April, when China abruptly announced it was shunting the NGO forum to Huairou, a good hour's drive from the Peking city site of the official UN World Conference on Women, which opens on 4 September.

At the official site in Peking, preparations for the governmental conference also had some way to go. There were no copies available yesterday of the key draft conference declaration, though it was possible to pick up a bound volume of the academic papers presented to the 1995 International Nuclear Physics Conference, which ended last night in Peking.

Controversy about the change in venue for the NGO Forum and the suitability of China to host the two meetings has overshadowed preparations so far. It is widely assumed that in moving the forum to Huairou, the Chinese authorities wanted to isolate foreign activists from the local population. Yet as busloads of women arrived yesterday from the airport, even those with complaints remained optimistic about what the forum could achieve. "It will be great. Women always make the best of things," said one American.

Anyone could register for the NGO Forum, and those taking part include members of established pressure groups, special interest organisations, charities, activists, and individuals. Delegates arriving in Huairou seemed determined not to let the Chinese government undermine the forum, where debate will embrace topics ranging from human rights, Tibetan women's rights, and prostitution, to reproductive rights - subjects not usually aired freely in China.

No one is underestimating the problems which remain. Most serious, a large number of women around the world - probably thousands - are still waiting this weekend for visas from Chinese embassies, as aircraft bookings start to lapse. It is already certain that the number attending will be nowhere near the 36,000 who originally registered for the forum, and many NGOs suspect that Peking is using bureaucratic delays as a method to keep numbers down.

On the ground at Huairou, it is also a last-minute scramble. No schedules of events are available. The shuttle buses to and from Peking have not started. The team from Apple Computer are connecting terminals in the press centre. Scaffolding still decorates the entrance arch to the main forum site. And just up the road, assistants are stocking the shelves at the glitzy new Peking North World shopping centre.

One thing which is ready is the security. The Greenpeace anti-nuclear protest in Tiananmen Square two weeks ago heightened Peking's fears that activist NGOs will stage demonstrations. Thousands of uniformed police and plainclothes security officials have been drafted in to Huairou, including hundreds of specially trained women police.

Irene Santiago, head of the NGO Forum facilitating committee, said yesterday: "On one level, I am happy we have security. On another level, I would like to make sure that they know what the letter of agreement says: that within the forum site ... there will be freedom of expression. The laws of the host country prevail only outside the forum area." Under Chinese law, demonstrations are not allowed without prior permission (which is never granted).

Apart from the 5,000 carefully vetted Chinese NGO delegates, ordinary Peking people will be kept away from the forum. Only cars with official permits will be allowed on the Peking-Huairou road, and all those in the cars will need individual passes. Already there are police at the entrance to all meeting venues and forum hotels checking credentials. The main site will be locked at 11pm each night, and visitors will have to be escorted past the gate.

There is one Chinese man who will certainly not be in Huairou this week. Tong Zeng, an activist who has been pressing for compensation from Japan for Second World War "comfort women", was dispatched yesterday to the southern province of Guangxi because the government did not want him to attend the NGO Forum. Relatives said officials took him from his home: "They asked him to go outside to discuss the matter. So he went outside and never came back."

Debate will continue over whether a country with China's human rights record, and especially its treatment of women, was an appropriate choice for the UN conference and the non-governmental forum. Forced late abortions under family planning laws, widespread selective abortion of female foetuses, kidnapping of brides in rural areas, and violence against women are common social abuses which the Chinese government has shown little interest in addressing.

Yet however hard the authorities try to ring-fence the forum, the fact that thousands of foreign women will raise such issues with their Chinese sisters may generate precisely the "spiritual pollution" which Peking so dreads. The women's meetings have forced China to issue visas to groups, such as Amnesty International, which have never before officially been admitted.

The very concept of an NGO is anathema to the ruling Communists. In Chinese official literature on the conferences, "NGO" is the one phrase never translated into Mandarin. Ms Santiago described how, in preparatory regional meetings, Chinese women delegates had begun to understand how NGOs operate in other countries.