Delegates in cold for Hillary's encore

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The Independent Online


It was, in fact, America's fault, said China. Thousands of women eager to hear Hillary Clinton speak had been left out in the cold and the torrential rain. And all because the US had "suddenly switched the venue", he official Xinhua news agency said, from an open-air school playground awash with water to the Huairou International Convention Centre.

Everyone who was anyone - and about 3,000 others - was in the drenched forecourt. By the time most people arrived, the former cinema was packed and a phalanx of security officers was standing firm. Betty Friedan, doyenne of the US women's movement, was turned away. Jane Fonda retreated whileWinston Lord, the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, and Donna Shalala, America's Health and Human Services Secretary, were for 30 minutes barred by the wall of policemen. Lisa Caputo, Mrs Clinton's press secretary, never did get past the guards.

On her second day in China, the First Lady's visit outside Peking to Huairou town, site of the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum did much to highlight the inadequate facilities. Mrs Clinton was to have given her speech at the Kuumba stage (formerly the Huairou No 1 Middle School playground), which could have held about 10,000 of the forum's 23,500 foreign participants. But the rain washed that out, leaving only the old cinema where the forum's overcrowded daily plenary sessions are held. Inside the building, packed to double capacity, everyone sang feminist anthems and gospel songs. "People pushing forward, never turning back!" was one refrain.

When Mrs Clinton finally appeared, it was to rousing applause. Her speech at the parallel UN World Conference on Women in Peking on Tuesday, which blasted as "indefensible" China's blocking of visas for some women who wanted to attend the forum and criticised the host country's human rights record, had gone down well in Huairou. Yesterday she told her audience: "You [the NGOs] will be the key players in determining whether or not this conference goes beyond rhetoric and actually does something to improve the lives of women and families. It will be [the activists] that will hold governments to the commitments they make."

Again she referred to China's obstacles. "For many of you who did get here, getting here was far from easy," she said. "I know that you have had to endure severe frustrations here as you do your work."

So far, Mrs Clinton's swipes at China have raised no response from her hosts. The Communist Party mouthpiece, People's Daily, relegated the speech to one line at the end of an inside-page report. "American Mrs Hillary Clinton made a speech," the last line of the article said, omitting her title.

America's ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, who is the official head of the US delegation, also took a firm line on China in her address yesterday to the main conference. "It is unconscionable ... that the right to free expression has been called into question right here at a conference conducted under the auspices of the UN and whose very purpose is the free and open discussion of women's rights," she said.

China's family planning policies were also attacked. "No women - whether in Birmingham, Bombay, Beirut or Beijing - should be forcibly sterilised or forced to have an abortion," Mrs Albright said.

In a further embarrassment for her hosts, she quoted from an old Chinese poem, in which a father talks to his daughter:

"We keep a dog to watch the house, a pig is useful too,

We keep a cat to catch a mouse, but what can we do

With a girl like you?"

So many women, Section Two