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Leading Article: Women's talk in China

It is difficult to think of an easier target for sneering than the UN conference on women, which finally got under way in Peking yesterday.

The sneerers have two main arguments. The first is that the very idea of a UN world conference on women is ludicrous, because there is no such thing as a set of issues relevant to women across the world, and that even if there were, a conference of governmental types would not be much use in addressing them. The second objection is that even if a worthwhile agenda could be defined, China would be among the least suitable places to consider it. China remains a one-party state, hostile to liberal values, and a place where resistance to the very birth of females has caused the natural gender balance in the population to drift from a norm of 106 males for every 100 females to a ratio of 114:100 at the last count.

These are both serious arguments and they are both wrong. Let us take the second one first. Its logic is that China is such a beastly place that the enlightened West should have as little to do with it as possible. Never mind that early in the next century it could be the biggest economy on earth or that this week a history of our millennium suggests, daringly, that we may yet count it as a blip between eras of Chinese global supremacy. Those who wish to ignore China may be assured that China will not ignore them. That is why, rightly, great effort is being put into drawing China fully into the international economic system through membership of the World Trade Organisation. China may still have an unacceptable political culture, but the chance of it getting better is surely greater if its people and its leaders are exposed to ideas, goods and people from beyond its borders. This UN conference and its related non-governmental gathering is a useful component in that process.

So what about the first argument? It is true that the diverse agenda of women's concerns - ranging through health, education, criminal justice and economics - are all in some sense the province of some well-established arm of government or UN agency, such as the World Health Organisation. Better, say the critics, to concentrate upon the subject to hand, rather than bracketing issues beneath the misleading banner of gender. Rather than a Ministry of Women, ensure that women's economic concerns are properly understood and represented in the finance ministry and the parliament.

There is truth in this, but it risks taking too narrow and conventional view of politics. The earthquake of female rights in the West this century was hardly driven by parliamentary committee. UN conferences, like the one at Rio on environmental issues, may be unwieldy and hard to follow, but they help to build networks and raise awareness. They also assist in the process whereby social policy is tested by international comparison and good practice spreads. No modern business would dare to function without knowledge of relevant international trends: why deny ourselves such tools in the social sphere?

What matters about events in China this week is not, primarily, the wording of the conference's final declaration, but the arguments that attend it. Benazir Bhutto's tirade against female infanticide will resonate through Asia. So, if we can set aside our arrogance, should the league table which puts Britain well below average for female representation in parliament. Don't knock the Peking conference. Listen.