China's conference jitters inflame women's groups

CHINA is used to doing diplomatic battle with foreign states, but it may have met its match with a different kind of foreign power - angry women activists around the world. They are exerting strong pressure on the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to force China to change its arrangements for the World Conference on Women in Peking this September or face the prospect that the event might go to another country.

There is fury among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which plan to attend the gathering, over an 11th-hour decision by China to accommodate their forum in a dusty tourist centre at Huairou, 54km from the site of the official conference in central Peking. The move is seen by many as a ploy to keep activists away from the main action.

"We just cannot take it," said Joan Ross Frankson of the International Women's Tribune Center. "We have to stand very firmly and not take the dregs that the Chinese are offering." Bella Abzug, a veteran pioneer of women's rights in the US and former member of Congress, said the NGOs intended to fight China until a settlement was reached. "In recent years, the NGOs and the governments have had a terrific partnership at these meetings and then, at the last minute, the Chinese say they are changing the site. I think they are afraid of the strength of the NGO community, because we are independent, free-thinking and free-wheeling," she said.

Until a month ago, the NGO Forum on Women was due to be held at a central Peking stadium and gymnasium, a huge compound which would have provided a single site for the estimated 200 activities a day. It was also within easy reach of the venue for the UN World Conference on Women.

Then a month ago, on 4 April, the NGO Forum in New York received a fax from its Chinese counterpart announcing that the site for the forum had been switched, citing "structural problems", but no one believes that. The Chinese government seems to have belatedly woken up to the reality of what 25,000 NGO women in central Peking could mean. Several groups have specific agendas, embracing human rights, abortion, prostitutes' rights, Tibet, and lesbianism.

The trip by Li Peng, the Prime Minister, to Copenhagen in March for the UN Social and Development Conference, where he saw NGO groups in action on the streets, appears to have been the final straw.

The dispute is extremely delicate for both sides. For China, attracting the women's conference to Peking was a significant step out of the diplomatic wilderness it has been in since the Tiananmen clampdown. To lose it would mean deep humilation. For Mr Boutros-Ghali, however, the prospect of challenging China - a permanent Security Council member - will be far from appealing. But he cannot easily ignore the NGOs.

Most serious, China could find itself accused of breaking the terms of the formal agreement signed between itself and the UN last October - a so-called "Host Country Agreement" - stipulating what it must provide to ensure the conference's success. In that case, loss of the conference could be almost automatic.

Leaders of the NGO Forum meet in New York tomorrow to adopt a resolution demanding Mr Boutros-Ghali and all UN member states require China to reconsider its plans or forfeit its right to stage the conference. A spokeswoman for the NGO Forum, Nell Merlino, expected a deadline to be set at tomorrow's meeting for Peking to respond to the demand.

A visit to the Huairou site yesterday revealed the disarray the Chinese are in. Next door to the Kang De Le Bodybuilding and Relaxation Centre is a large building site ringed by a corrugated-iron fence. Behind it two huge holes in the ground with cement foundations are all that can be seen of the planned four-star, six-storey "Member's Club Hotel" to house the better-heeled NGO delegates. At the back of the compound, the planned main meeting venue is still an old gravel athletics track around an oval dirt pitch.

No matter how much effort the Chinese government puts into Huairou's face-lift, two problems are insoluble. With a round-trip of at least two hours by car between Huairou and Peking, free exchange between the two conferences will be a logistical nightmare. Media coverage will be greatly hindered by transportation difficulties.

Huairou also lacks what the NGO Forum calls a single "coherent" site, where delegates can easily mingle and wander between events. There are also rumours that the 5,000 Chinese NGO delegates may be housed even further afield, in line with Peking's wish to minimise contact between its own women's movement and radical foreign groups.

The question now for the NGO Forum is whether there is any hope of China changing its mind. The edict clearly came from a high level in a government obsessed with maintaining social stability as it faces the impending death of its paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. High-profile petitions in the near future could prove counterproductive, by forcing China into a corner where any compromise would be seen as yielding to foreign pressure.

Driving out of Huairou, one passes a sign: "Wish you to love Huairou." No one will, of course. But this dismal saga might teach a world which almost gave Peking the 2000 Olympics that China is not yet a suitable host for important international gatherings.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'