Peking diary

Head girl here at the UN World Conference on Women is Gertrude Mongella, who has shown us all how to be well-behaved guests. As the conference's secretary-general she first raised eyebrows in July when, after a whistle- stop tour of the half-built site for the parallel women's forum in Huairou, she pronounced it "excellent". No matter that the proposed building for the daily plenary sessions had no walls, a defect that even the Chinese hosts acknowledged when, just before the forum opened, they shifted the meetings to a renovated cinema.

As a series of rows erupted last week in Huairou over everything from the squads of camera-heavy security goons to the absence of shuttle buses between Huairou and Peking, Ms Mongella remained buoyant. Huairou, she said, demonstrated the "love, commitment and patience" of the people of China. The next day she switched her eulogies to Peking where, she observed, "you can see peace, which world women have been looking for for many years, as we walk in the street and as we go about the city".

Ms Mongella's temporary loss in China of her critical faculties is all the more worrying given her impressive cv. Born on a small Tanzanian island, she made it against the odds to university in Dar-es-Salaam and then became a teacher. In the mid-Seventies she entered politics, served in several ministerial positions, and ended up as her country's ambassador to India.

By happy coincidence, Ms Mongella will celebrate her 50th birthday in Peking next Wednesday, two days before the end of the women's conference. But she should be warned that even birthday cakes have to pass the censor's muster at the moment. Last week Amnesty International went to a bakery in one of the city's four-star hotels to order a cake inscribed "Free Ma Thida", in readiness for a party to mark the detained Burmese activist's birthday. About half an hour after taking the order, the human rights group was told that Chinese police had "approved" the cake.

For Peking's much-put-upon local residents, the conference experience has turned daily life into a series of tedious do's and don'ts, including strict instructions concerning balcony discipline. Drying laundry must not be allowed to peek out from behind the city's balcony walls, nor should flowerpots or, indeed, anything else placed on the balcony be visible from the street below. Work teams have been mobilised to scrub clean the grubby railings along the middle of the main roads.

As for Peking's drivers, they have their own bureaucratic problems. Fines will be levied if cars are "dirty or shabby" and, regardless of the seasonal rains, "the tyres should not be covered with mud". But even a gleaming vehicle will not guarantee its driver unencumbered passage. To reduce the city's traffic congestion during the conference, it has been decreed that on even-numbered dates, only cars with even-number plates are allowed out on the roads, and vice versa for odd-numbered days.

Some things at least have not changed: despite strict regulations being imposed on taxis allowed near the conference centre, many cab-drivers are still forgetting to switch on their meters when escorting foreign guests around.

Dotted around the site of the parallel forum in Huairou town, which began last week, are some shining examples of the modern Western male who, hugely outnumbered by the sisterhood, are trying to say all the right things. Keith Bain, a New Zealander teaching English in China, was so keen to come to the forum that he took time off work and registered as an individual delegate.

"I think there is a need for men to be here because later on we are going to have to tell men about all this stuff that needs to be done for women," he enthused. Could I buy him a beer? "This is it, man, this is my beer, being among these women."

One male who must feel rather differently is Ronald McDonald. The American hamburger chain has set up a temporary outlet right in the middle of the forum site, with a life-sized plastic Ronald on a bench outside. It has been doing brisk business with those heartily sick of Chinese pot-noodles.

But, just as the Chinese government feared, a counter-revolution is afoot. The smear campaign began at the weekend with anonymous flyers denouncing the "symbol of transnational corporate imperialism" and calling for action. "Take a stance! Gather at McDonald's and let us send a message. Chuck mud patties at Ronny and give him a real Big Mac attack!!"

When the attack came earlier this week, it was far worse. To the utter astonishment of onlooking Chinese volunteers, ketchup-wielding female warriors smothered Ronald's face with sauce, and then put him over their lap and spanked him - a clear breach of forum rules, which state that ideological confrontations should be settled without violence in the Peace Tent.

After a week of mingling with the finest of China's public security apparatus up at Huairou, even the most mild-mannered among us gets tired of being videoed by men in acrylic shirts. So it was good to see proof last weekend that the Chinese plainclothes policeman retains a notion of public service. A table appeared along one of the main thoroughfares in Huairou on Sunday, staffed by three men offering delicious, large apples, albeit at extortionate prices. They were selling quickly, and I noticed one of the men get up and walk around the corner to collect a couple more boxes - from the boot of a parked police car.

On show at Huairou is another example of entrepreneurship which suggests China may still not fully appreciate the subtleties of hosting a conference on women's rights. Prominent on one of the main walk-throughs is a booth selling the "Promist Infusion for Beautifying the Breast", a product recently approved by China's Ministry of Public Health. "Breast is the Most Attractive Physiological Curve ... Many young girls feel ashamed about their small and flat breast," says the brochure. The infusion offers "direct effect for the girls in puberty" and therapeutic effects for "flaccid, atrophic and bearing down breast" of anyone who has had children. Sales, so far, have proved somewhat disappointing.

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