In the Seventies, when population panic was taught in schools, draconian Chinese legislation was greeted with enthusiasm; everybody was relieved that the Chinese, too, wanted fewer Chinese and were prepared to trample roughshod over human rights to get them.
To some observers it was obvious that the imposition of a one-child rule upon a peasant population that had barely emerged from a system in which women had been the property of men, who had the power to treat them as slaves, to starve, beat and even kill them, would lead to appalling abuses. Historically, peasant populations have led lives nasty, brutal and short, their only hope centred on having sons to carry on the line, to till the soil and lie beneath. In China, where farmers are still often buried on their own land, the continuum concept was even more important than it was in Europe. Only a totalitarian government could have obliterated at a stroke the Chinese peasant's reason for living.
Dynasty having been abolished, the rural worker toiled for the advancement of his community; when the struggle was against famine, victory was obvious and rewarding. With the liberalisation of agriculture and the stirrings of a free market mentality, the rural worker is once again dreaming his old dream.
By enforcing population control by a variety of pressures exerted with varying degrees of ferocity at commune level, the Chinese have reduced their population growth to less than 1.4 per cent a year, an astonishing achievement, but still not enough for the bishop who contributed his thought for the day to Radio 4 on Saturday. The very thought that a quarter of the world's population is Chinese seemed to fill this good gentleman with unease. If he wanted to illustrate runaway population growth, China was the worst example he could have chosen and yet he chose it. The disease of the millennium looks like being Sinophobia and the UN Conference on Women its first casualty.
In vain the organisers repeat that this is not a conference on China, but a women's conference taking place in China simply because an Asian venue had been decided upon after Mexico City and Nairobi, and the Chinese made the only offer.
Why they offered is a bit of a mystery; some say they confidently expected the millennium Olympic Games and the conference would have been a warm- up. What is clear now is that the Chinese authorities are appalled at what they have brought upon themselves. This is the biggest-ever UN conference with 35,000 delegates in the official conference, not counting the Forum for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) and the mob of accompanying media.
The Chinese are clearly anxious to avoid actual physical unpleasantness and to accommodate their visitors in a style they find acceptable; both are tall orders. The endless demands for visas and accreditation have resulted in stonewalling and delays as the Chinese struggle to keep an uncontrollable situation under control.
In the run-up to the conference the Chinese have received serve after serve of critical media attention. In May the totally unrealistic suggestion was made that the UN might have to seek another venue for the conference because the Chinese had moved the NGO Forum to Huairou. The Chinese said that the original building, the Workers' Stadium, had developed defects that rendered it unsafe; nobody believed them. The move was interpreted as an attempt drastically to limit NGO access to the conference. As the UK contingent of NGOs to Peking comprises more than 50 development agencies there would appear to be some argument for imposing some kind of a limit; in the event, the UN refused accreditation to 493 of the 2,000-odd agencies that applied. This, too, is normal, but when China is in question all behaviours become sinister. The NGO Forum is less distance from the conference in Peking than it was in Rio, where no fuss was made at all.
Throughout June, as the anniversary of Tiananmen approached, the Chinese accumulated bad publicity by arresting prominent dissidents. The announcement of the new Chinese Law on Maternal and Infant Care, which requires carriers of genetic disorders to undergo sterilisation as a condition of receiving permission to marry was greeted in the West with outcry. The West did not strain at swallowing the camel of the one-child rule, which limited everybody's reproductive rights, but it gags on the gnat of limiting the reproductive rights of carriers of genetic disorder. The birth of a damaged child in China usually results in permission to try again, but in communes in which this will not be forthcoming the pressure to abandon or do away with the child must be all but irresistible.
What the central government has to consider is that upon the healthy children will fall the burden of the care of all the non-productive members of the community. The spectre that can be glimpsed behind social welfare legislation in China is the spectre of the famine that used to be endemic; in the coming crunch the younger population may not be able to feed the longer-lived older generation. When freedom from hunger is menaced, the other freedoms tend to matter less.
China is not the only country in which the birth of a girl child is viewed as a disaster by women as well as men. The UN has long been aware of and has discussed the problem of millions of disappearing girl children in India and Pakistan, which is not caused by anything as obvious as infanticide, but by what could be called 'differential care'. When a girl child falls ill, her parents are not motivated to walk the many miles to the clinic or part with hard-earned cash for medicine. If she does not eat, they will not beggar themselves to find something she will swallow. She will die of illnesses that her brother will survive.
This is not just a question of human rights or economics but of a cultural system developed out of centuries of hardship. Governments can try to raise the status of women by criminalising dowry and bride-price, female circumcision, prostitution, slavery and murder, but ultimately women must bring about the changes themselves. The World Conference is of value not to China or the UN, who have merely furnished the occasion, but to the women who will be there and the women who sent them.
The Chinese have only one way of dealing with Western vociferations about their ways of handling their own problems and that is to ignore them, but the chorus has grown so loud that the Chinese could be understood to be feeling something rather like despair. In July they succeeded in getting human-rights campaigner Harry Wu to confess that he had made untrue accusations, with the result that US Congressmen demanded sanctions against China. Though other observers question some of Wu's facts, for example that there are 20 million people in prison camps in China, the Chinese attempt to right the record - by arresting him for violations of immigration law, and televising him as he commented on TV films based on his information - only succeeded in convicting the Chinese of duress and persecution.
By the beginning of August the US Senate was urging a boycott of the Conference on Women, using the UN event quite improperly as a way of exerting pressure on the Chinese. (Nobody suggested that the US would boycott Rio if the Brazilians did not begin to take environmental issues seriously.) The way out was found by sentencing Wu to 15 years' imprisonment and deportation, and deporting him at once so that Hillary Clinton could go to the conference after all. It was reported, unnecessarily, that she would have no contact with Chinese government officials.
In England, anti-Chinese uproar was triggered by the transmission of a Channel 4 documentary called The Dying Rooms, which purported to portray the plight of around one million abandoned children a year in China. That the orphanage sequences were genuine I would not dispute, but, population policy being both different and differently applied in different regions, the prevalence of such abuses is difficult to estimate. As I travelled a year ago from Xinjiang, where I saw families of four and five children, eastwards towards Shanghai, where the one-child rule is rigorously enforced, I was told repeatedly that in China 115 boys were born for every 100 girls. Everyone seemed concerned that "there are already 50 million surplus males in China".
Western observers have estimated the shortfall of females anywhere between 15 and 60 million; any such figures must be guesses. What I was hearing from the Chinese was probably the result of a government propaganda campaign to counteract the pronounced preference for male children. The new version is filled with concern for the millions of men who will never find a wife and never have sons of their own. No government wants 15 or 50 million unattached males roaming its streets.
The response to The Dying Rooms was an orgy of self-righteous Sinophobia; the London Evening Standard, which does not usually trouble itself about Asia or women's rights but is greatly interested in television, rang me to ask for a piece condemning China as the venue for the World Conference on Women. As an old UN hand who has been tearing her hair for 30 years over the hypocrisy, muddle and compromise that is all that the UN can ever manage, I declined. The piece eventually written by Suzanne Moore bore the headline, "How can women justify this junket to China?", which neatly encapsulated the Evening Standard's threefold aim of sneering at the UN, ridiculing women and insulting China.
Moore argued that "those things which cannot be said there look like being far more important than what it will be permissible to debate"; in fact, the Chinese authorities will have no power to muzzle the conference or the forum once they have convened. Getting the floor at either conference or forum is easy; as a veteran of such conferences I have yet to witness anyone silenced or ejected - but I have had to listen courteously to the likes of Mrs Marcos and Princess Ashraf pretending to be concerned for the world's women.
Traditionally the Women's Conferences are vehicles for the bedmates of the men in power. The UN, which seldom gets any closer to heads of state, falls panting into the arms of their wives and concubines. Most of the government delegates to Peking will have been sent to justify their country's performance vis-a-vis women, and the courtesies of the situation demand that the other delegates do not fall about laughing or howl in derision.
Both UN officials and the Chinese fear that the Conference on Women will be turned into a conference on China. In fact there is a good deal of overlap between the Platform for Action to be agreed by the conference and the issues to be discussed at the forum. As neither conference nor forum has any power of enforcement, the Platform for Action is actually a collection of guidelines; the UN can only say "governments should" and never "governments must". Some governments have still to ratify the Women's Convention of 1975.
Yet it is no more true to say that Peking will be a non-event than it would be true to say that the sell-out stomping and cheering What Women Want Concert at the Festival Hall on Saturday was a non-event. Though scented hackettes may earn good money for reviling the organisers of both in the name of their own brand of filter-tipped feminism, they have missed the point. For the 60,000-odd women who will be there, Peking will be a blast. And it won't do the Chinese any harm either.
Germaine Greer will be writing a fortnightly column for the Independent, starting on Friday.Reuse content