Snub to US women puts pressure on Mrs Clinton

RUPERT CORNWELL

in Washington

and TERESA POOLE

in Peking

China has still not granted visas to many American women seeking to attend next week's unofficial world women's gathering near Peking, further increasing pressure on Hillary Clinton not to participate in the UN-sponsored World Conference on Women which starts in the Chinese capital on 4 September.

Despite stern State Department strictures that the parallel non-Governmental (NGO) conference is a "fundamental and integral" part of the occasion, hundreds of women here were still waiting for visas or had been notified that accommodation was not available in Huairou, where the NGO conference is being held.

Concern that China is exercising an unauthorised power of veto over participation in the NGO forum grew yesterday when a government spokesman said that some delegates who are viewed by the Chinese to "threaten the safety" of the conference would be denied visas.

Chen Jian, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said only a "very small" number of organisations or people would be affected. However, the Chinese stance appears to violate the principles under which China was chosen to host the UN conference. Under these, any person accredited by the UN for the official conference on women, or correctly registered for the NGO Forum must be given a visa by Peking.

Most affected are gay and anti-abortion groups, pro-Tibet and pro-Taiwan activists and campaigners against forced labour and other Chinese human rights violations.

Among those hit are representatives of the US branch of Amnesty International. The tactics are the time-honoured ones of Communist regimes past and present, less a blunt rejection of a visa application than deliberate bureaucratic stalling to achieve the same result.

As the days slip away and the clamour mounts, all eyes are on the decision, perhaps as early as today, on whether Mrs Clinton will attend.

The First Lady, honorary chairman of the US delegation, is known to be desperately keen to take part in a conference devoted to causes she has long championed, but many politicians here - Democrats as well as Republicans - argue that her presence would confer tacit approval on China's policies, when it continues to hold jailed Chinese-American human rights activist Harry Wu, and when its relations with Washington are deeply strained.

Earlier this month the wife of Mr Wu personally appealed to the First Lady not to go. But other White House aides note that the conference is organised not by Peking but by the UN, and that there could be no more powerful platform for Mrs Clinton to speak out on causes with which she is identified, from health care to poverty and exploitation of women around the world.

Yesterday's comments by the Chinese, however, will accentuate the mistrust and confusion which is already overshadowing the meetings, and confirm suspicion that some of the "delays" may be politically motivated.

Ever since China abruptly shifted the NGO Forum to Huairou, more than 30 miles outside Peking, international women's groups have feared the Chinese planned to limit the number of NGO participants, and control the meeting.

Mr Chen admitted that there had been delays in issuing visas, but blamed this on the unexpectedly large number of delegates.

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