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.

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