AS is so often the case in this Age of Headline News, the tail has wagged the dog on the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. China has become the focus, rather than the world's women and their needs. So let's start by moving to one side Hillary Clinton, Harry Wu and Chinese prison labor, Taiwan's world standing, and Tibet's status - even China's foot dragging on conference visas. These are important issues. But they obscure attention to the plight of women in many nations. The conference, like all UN-sponsored conferences, will be a compound of earnest discovery, too many overlapping speeches, informal exchanges of good ideas, and personal networking. When such conferences end and the official delegates and nongovernmental groups go home, it's always hard to gauge whether they will truly alter the world's course on environment, population, armaments, housing, or - in this case - the lot of half of humanity. But ideas have power even when they seep slowly through the resistance of prejudice and ignorance. Discussion in and outside Beijing will focus on women's economic status, their health, their education, their rights as human beings. While many of the issues to be addressed certainly apply to China - coerced abortion, female infanticide, forced sterilization - China is far from the worst offender among world societies. The UN chose China for its fourth conference on women simply because it was the only Asian bidder. The three meetings that preceded this one were held in Africa, Europe, and Latin America. There has been much progress for women in the Pacific side of Asia. The resistant Japanese culture is gradually discarding female subservience. As standards of living rise in the Asian Tiger countries, women are becoming better educated, assuming management jobs, and having smaller, less stressed families. Central and Western Asia remain the site of many traditional problems: child labor, forced prostitution, and wife-battering, to name a few. And obviously women in other parts of the world still suffer from attitudes enforcing inferior status - economic, physical, and mental. The Beijing conference will be a success, despite turmoil, if each delegation returns home determined to publicize and press at least one reform of laws and customs to improve the safety and standing of half its citizens. The UN parley will combine overlapping speeches, good ideas, and personal networking.