THE once-a-decade UN summit on women scheduled in Beijing this year was supposed to lend China new international prestige.
Instead, the conference is snarled in controversy as China backs away from pledges to run an open meeting.
In late August and September, more than 30,000 officials, activists, and journalists from around the world are expected to flood Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women and the Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) Forum on Women.
But in recent weeks, China has become the target of charges that it has banned Taiwan, Tibet, and hundreds of NGOs involved in human rights from the meeting. The government is also accused of changing the venue of the NGO forum to isolate its participants from official events.
Last month, almost 500 NGO groups were denied credentials as special observers to the official conference under pressure from Beijing, raising concerns that they could be banned from all activities of the summit and denied visas to China.
While the UN secretariat is in charge of accrediting delegates to the conference, credentials for the NGO forum are being issued by a special organizing committee in New York.
In hosting the high-profile summit, China agreed to be open and not refuse a visa to anyone holding an NGO-forum accreditation obtained by the April 30 deadline, UN officials say.
Trying to control numbers
In an interview before the controversy broke out, Li Yueying, an official with the All-China Women's Federation, which will run the NGO Forum, estimated that about 20,000 to 25,000 people would attend the forum but said that ''we will try to control the numbers because we don't think that more is necessarily better.''
After a group of United States congressional leaders demanded that names of the banned groups and reasons for their rejection be made public, the accrediting committee reopened their cases last week, according to UN officials.
''[The ban] is a result of direct pressure from the Chinese,'' says Rachel Lostumbo of the Washington, D.C.-based International Campaign for Tibet.
She says her organization is one of nine Tibetan groups involved with exiles or monitoring the treatment of Tibetan women that has been rejected accreditation.
''If we're not allowed in and some women's voices are silenced, it can't be a successful conference,'' Ms. Lostumbo says.
This week in New York, China dropped another bombshell when it announced it was changing the venue of the NGO forum from a centrally located stadium to a remote suburb about 35 miles from downtown Beijing, citing ''structural problems'' at the original site.
Stunned by the news, a delegation of NGO forum planners are due here in mid-April to press for a more convenient location.
''The purpose of having the parallel events is that one can get strength from the other. Our concern is to have two sites that are accessible to each other,'' says Sarah Burd-Sharps, a Beijing-based official with the United Nations Development Fund for Women and a conference adviser.
''When China took on this project a few years ago, I don't think it understood the dynamic relationship between NGOs and governments in other countries,'' she adds.
Unfortunately, the controversies are overshadowing other women's issues and the development of a new NGO movement in China.
The conference has also stirred challenges at home to official intolerance of free speech and raised issues such as human rights and violence against women, long considered taboo in Communist China.
In a country where the authoritarian government pries into the daily life of every Chinese and in the past has insisted all groups be under the government, the UN meeting is acting as a catalyst in promoting the growth of some NGO groups, which activists hope will be freer of government control and provide a model for the future.
''China is not a very diverse society. All decisions come from the top. Chinese are used to being passive in decisionmaking,'' says one Chinese woman activist.
''But if we have the development of NGOs in the future, we will have the beginnings of democracy. This is a significant process,'' she says.
''Because the conference is being held here, the Chinese government has moved a lot further on women's issues than it would otherwise have,'' says Ms. Burd-Sharps.
A roundup of dissidents?
Western diplomats say that China is backtracking because of political unease over the succession to their ailing paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
They worry that China, which is used to stage-managing major public events, could round up its own dissidents as is customary before major events, block NGOs from bringing in their own printed materials, and load its NGO forum delegation with party officials while excluding more independent-minded Chinese women.
The All-China Women's Federation, the country's premier women's organization, just completed its imposing white headquarters building on Beijing's main thoroughfare and is busy training an army of workers to run the massive conference. The federation, which did not participate in previous NGO meetings, has been creating dozens of new NGOs, which officials claim are independent but Western observers say remain under government control.
''We do have NGOs which are independent financially and politically and have their own objectives,'' insists Ms. Li, the Women's Federation official.
''I do think there is a certain confusion that they remain a little official, but in effect they are not,'' she adds.