Chinese Leaders Heave a Sigh As Women Activists Exit Beijing

Debate over final Platform of Action ends in a delicate compromise

The young woman is one of China's brightest and best.

As a consultant to an international aid organization here, she helped ready information for foreign colleagues before the recent UN Fourth World Conference on Women. But when the summit opened earlier this month, she and dozens of other innovative, free-thinking Chinese women did not attend.

"I had no chance to join the official delegations, although ... I could have contributed a lot to the discussions," she says, referring to the more than 5,000 hand-picked Chinese women at the official conference and the parallel Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum. "The government didn't want to take any risks," she explains.

The largest - and riskiest - conclave of foreigners in China ended successfully Sept. 15 by the standards of Chinese authorities. Despite the influx of more than 30,000 international participants for the summit, few Chinese heard the rousing delegates' speeches, debated and chatted with spirited activists, or even penetrated the tight security around the meetings.

The demonstrations, a hallmark of such international meets, were carefully restricted and kept far from Tiananmen Square where, since the massive 1989 pro-democracy protests, officials have feared the smallest rally could trigger another outpouring.

And most Chinese heard little other than glowing press reports of the conference hosts and preparations, masking widespread controversy over strident security and harassment of some activists and makeshift meeting conditions at the informal NGO forum.

Although Beijing had at one time sought the conference to boost its international status, government officials, insecure in the twilight years of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, are breathing easier as the world's women went home.

"China's reputation took a beating during this conference. But that's not their main concern. There was no major incident. That's the big concern," says a Western diplomat here. "I don't think China is going to want another one of these for a long time to come."

China also sat on the sidelines for much of the great debate that climaxed with a delicate pact ending the official conference last Friday. After several nearly sleepless nights of continuous negotiating, the more than 5,000 delegates hammered out an accord that won measured applause from many participants and cautious acquiescence from some of the 189 signatory countries.

Although the Platform of Action doesn't bind any government to its principles, many delegates and activists regard it as an agenda of international standards that can be used to promote the cause of women and prod reticent governments back home.

Striking a deal that everyone could live with was not easy. A number of countries from the Philippines to Sudan pledged to avoid final measures that interfere with national customs and religion. An African coalition failed to secure more pledges of financial assistance from the West to underwrite the agenda's implementation. Shared concerns over lesbian rights and other provisions regarded as antifamily and antireligion made the aggressive Vatican delegation strange bedfellows with Iran and other Islamic nations.

"Here are these documents that are very mixed," said Mary Ann Glendon, who headed the Vatican delegation. She praised segments on educating women and lifting them out of poverty but criticized efforts to "sanitize these documents of every reference to religion."

Promoting more progressive positions, such as children's right to privacy, was the European Union, which chafed at the less hearty backing from US delegates worried about conservative Republican criticism at home.

Delegates praised new emphasis on the rights of girls endangered by infanticide, sex-selective abortions, and preference for male children in many developing societies. Islamic countries struck a compromise on assurances of equal property inheritance among men and women. Canada and other liberal participants had to back off on language that would broaden the definition of "sexual orientation," seen by many conservatives as a recognition of homosexual rights.

"We have gotten farther than we expected.... At least we have set a precedent for the next conference," says a Canadian diplomat.

"Even though the discussions went down to the last minute, the debate was conducted with good will and without the bitterness that we saw in Cairo," said Sonia Correa, a Brazilian delegate, referring to last year's UN population conference in Cairo.

As cleaning crews moved in to clear away any signs of the women's conference, the site of the NGO forum in the distant Beijing suburb of Huairou, sealed off for 10 days by police, has already been opened to curious Chinese. Where police had disrupted meetings, local residents are now trickling in to view delegates rooms and meeting halls and watch a discreet video on the meeting.

Still, foreign participants say they thought they had had some lasting impact on China. "In Huairou, there were 5,000 Chinese women. Even if they were hand-picked by the government, they have had interaction with other groups. That will remain," says Pierre Sane, secretary-general of Amnesty International. "It will not be lost."

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