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Feminists face cool reception in China



September in Peking can be stifling. So what better way to keep feminists at the International Women's Non-Governmental Forum, which starts on 30 August, from getting hot under the collar than by holding the daily plenary sessions in an unfinished three-storey building with half a roof and no walls?

"It is almost finished," insisted Cai Jinxi, head of the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum's financing committee, as he indicated the rough concrete skeleton structure to his left. The lack of walls was a bonus, he suggested, "because it will be cooler in the summer heat". Earlier, there had been an inspection tour of a residential block, one of 63 which will house about 11,500 of the expected 35,000 foreign NGO delegates flying in to take part in the international gathering in Huairou, a small town 30 miles north of Peking.

China is playing host to the Fourth World Conference on Women as well as the parallel NGO Forum. In Huairou, a good one-hour drive from Peking, much has been achieved during the 150 days which the local government was given to get ready.

The town's cinema has been re-invented as the Huairou International Conference Centre, seating 1,500 in what is described as the "main conference room".The playground of the No. 1 Middle School has been concreted over and 1,000 tables and parasols will be set out to accommodate 10,000 people. Some 75 meeting-rooms and 86 large tents will be able to seat a further 12,000. Hotels and apartment blocks will provide living accommodation for 16,000, leaving 19,000 to stay in Peking and commute daily.

It has all cost a great deal of money. Zhao Yuhe, governor of Huairou county, estimated that 250m yuan (pounds 20m) had been spent preparing the site. To cater for women from the Third World, a large proportion of delegates will pay just $10 a night (pounds 6.50) for living quarters.

But no amount of effort can remove the suspicion that Peking's sudden announcement in early April that the NGO Forum was being shunted from central Peking to Huairou was an attempt to ring-fence NGO activities from ordinary Chinese people. Security will be extraordinarily tight during the conference: a police official in the town said 5,400 security personnel, from the police, People's Armed Police and State Security Bureau, will be on duty during the forum.

And if any NGO groups plan to stage the sort of demonstrations that have been commonplace at previous NGO Forums, they should heed Mr Zhao's warning.

"Any person going abroad should respect the laws of the country he or she visits ... any activity which is against China's law will be forbidden." Approval for demonstrations is rarely given. Yesterday eight Greenpeace activists, including two photographers, were deported from China for unfurling an anti-nuclear banner in Tiananmen Square on Tuesday.