WHEN China was chosen in 1991 to host the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, its leaders probably foresaw a public relations triumph. They may have smiled at the prospect of thousands of visitors viewing China's scenic wonders and shopping in its markets.
Those smiles had faded by early 1995, when it apparently dawned on the men in Beijing that this September's gathering could be more than a quiet discussion of issues like equal pay and access to education - areas where the Chinese feel they've been progressive. In particular, Chinese officials realized that social activists and human-rights campaigners would soon be meeting in their capital alongside the official UN delegations. These representatives of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) have become an integral part of such UN convocations, and their contribution of ideas and energy has been widely praised.
But how do you keep such people from spilling out to the sidewalks, talking to average Chinese, and maybe even sparking a demonstration?
Simply move them out of town, the officials concluded. The announcement in April that the NGO Forum on Women, expected to draw up to 36,000 participants, would be moved 30 miles from Beijing to the outlying suburb of Huairou caused an international uproar. Critics said China was attempting to stifle the NGO voices, and Beijing's efforts to deny accreditation to groups that directly challenge its policies - such as those that favor Tibetan independence - added to the negative din.
Ironically, this pre-conference controversy will focus more media attention on the NGO part of the event than would otherwise have been the case. The problems facing China's own women, from a resurgence of patriarchal control in recent years to the one-child family planning rule, will probably be spotlighted more than ever.
The miscalculations of Chinese officials in this regard are, perhaps, understandable. China doesn't have the NGOs and grass-roots activism that are forces for change elsewhere in the world, so it may have trouble gauging their significance. But the outcry over the Huairou move should have altered that. If China wants to recoup some of its PR losses, it should do all it can to accommodate the NGOs and aid their participation. That, in itself, would make the conference memorable.