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Peking tries to put women out of sight

Huairou is a nondescript Chinese county town not usually visited by foreigners, except as a pit-stop for the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. It is a two-and-a-half hour, 60-mile round-trip drive from Peking, has limited hotel space and lacks any large conference facilities and, as such, is not the most obvious site to host a key international women's forum for 30,000 participants and observers.

Peking, however, sees thingsdifferently. It has unilaterallyannounced that the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum on Women in September will not, after all, be held in the capital, but in Huairou.Furore ensued. The sudden switch of venue looks like a clumsy attempt to segregate the NGOs, among whom are groupsconcerned with topics not freely discussed inChina -human and workers' rights, abortion andTibet.

"It looks like they are trying to make it as difficult as possible for interchange between the NGOs and the official UN conference on women, and to keep the NGOs away from the Chinese people," said one diplomat. The UN conference, out of which Peking is wringing every column-inch of propaganda, will still be held at Peking city sites.

Huairou is now a hive of renovation in a frantic bid to have the town ready in time.At the Prosperity and Happiness Restaurant, the builders are at work inin expectation of an autumn boom in customers. Huairou's cinema is being refitted as the main hall for the forum's plenary sessions (though it seats a mere 1,700). It is clear that the decision to move to Huairou must have been taken several weeks ago. A front-desk receptionist at the town's Longshan Hotel,said she had been told of the switch "in mid-March". The NGO forum organisers in New York, on the other hand, were onlyinformed by fax less than two weeks ago.

People are angry because China's decision threatens thewhole exercise. What is loosely referred to as the UN women's conference is actually two events in tandem: the official UN conference and the NGO Forum. and there is supposed to be ainteraction betweenthe two arenas. The NGOs provide expertise for the official delegates as well as lobbying hard to influence the UN conference's formal adoption of a platform for action. Under the Chinese arrangements, such interchange is going to involve driving back and forth. "It's not the same, that's certain," said Sarah Burd-Sharps, the UN conference adviser in Peking.Foreign journalistswill also find it a challenge to cover both events.

The original site was centred on the Peking workers' stadium and gymnasium, a vast compound with plenty of roomfor the 200 activities a day. Last week the Chinese organisers announced that "a recent inspection revealed some structural problems with the gymnasium". Yet an official at the gymnasium this week told the Independent that the building had hardly been used since 1990, when it was one of the sites for the Asian Games.Diplomats wonder why such serious structural problems were not noticed until so late in the day, and why an alternative could not have been found in central Peking.

Organisers from the NGO Forum in New York are due to fly to Peking, to discuss the situation. On their guided tour of Huairou, they may,wonder where everyone will stay.Nevertheless, China may present Huairou as a fait accompli,arguing that it is too late to look for an alternative venue.

The choice of Chinalooked controversial after 493 NGOs out of 2,000 applicants were recently refused observer status for the official UN conference, partly after pressure from China. After outside lobbying, the UN secretariat has agreed to re-hear applications, and any group finally rejected will be told why.