Dozens of British women look unlikely to be able to reach Peking for the United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Women as the deadline for Chinese visa applications runs out with many left ungranted.
As suspicions grew that some problems were the result of deliberate political stalling by the Chinese authorities, the women's irritation has been compounded by reports that the first British representatives have arrived to find their hotels are still building sites.
The main conference begins in Peking on 4 September, but earlier this year Chinese authorities said the parallel gathering of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) would take place 30 miles away in Huairou. Chinese promises accommodation for this alternative NGO Forum, which starts next Wednesday, would be finished in time are looking worthless.
Nevertheless, a long queue formed at the Chinese embassy in London as women made last-ditch attempts to secure visas to attend the two events.
The Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) organised a tour of its projects in Hong Kong, China and the Philippines to coincide with the conference but Maggie Burns, its representative, has no visa. She cannot collect it without a hotel confirmation but her accommodation was withdrawn and no alternative provided. A spokeswoman said: "It's very disappointing. It would have been a very good opportunity to meet and network, particularly because we work with people in the developing countries in the southern hemisphere."
Sue Tibballs, who has co-ord- inated the Peking Forum UK group of organisations attending the NGO Forum, said that she realised the scale of the difficulties only this week. "People have found that as soon as the person on the other end of the phone at the Chinese embassy or organising committee realises you have a problem, they put the telephone down and walk away," she said.
Ms Tibballs said other applicants were told the embassy did not have to explain why an application was being refused. "They say, 'China has the final say'. It's just utterly unreasonable . . . the risk is that a significant number of women are not going to be able to get there."
Part of the problem has been the bureaucracy involved in catering for about 35,000 delegates to the NGO Forum with thousands more attending the official UN conference.
Women had to gain accreditation through the UN in New York and accommodation confirmation from Peking. Both these hurdles were complicated when the organising office moved from New York to China earlier in the summer and when the Chinese moved the forum from Peking to Huairou.
Not even government bodies have been exempt from the difficulties. Vicky Lea, of the British Council's gender and development team, said they had to chase the Chinese organising committee in Peking constantly and put people on standby to take the visa applications to the embassy in Manchester. "It was cutting it fine," she said.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in London said: "First they must get accreditation from the UN and then they must show us the hotel confirmation. This is necessary. The majority of participants have already got their visa to China."
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