China Holds Fast to Isolating Thousands of Blunt Women

Some concessions on NGO forum during UN women's meeting this fall

HUAIROU is not an obvious choice for an international women's summit that is expected to draw almost 40,000 activists and journalists from around the world.

A dusty pit stop on the way to the Great Wall and Ming Tombs, two major Beijing tourist attractions, Huairou has limited hotel space, lacks large conference facilities, and is more than an hour away from central Beijing.

Yet this distant suburb fits perfectly into China's plan to isolate outspoken women participants of the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum on Women, which will run concurrently in August and September with the UN Fourth World Conference on Women.

Last week, Chinese, UN, and NGO Forum officials hammered out a compromise organizers say makes Huairou more acceptable for the conclave. China raised an international furor by announcing in April it was switching the NGO venue from Beijing to Huairou. The parallel UN conference will still be held at its original site in Beijing.

During the talks, China held tough on the Huairou site. Against the backdrop of uncertainty surrounding succession to ailing leader Deng Xiaoping, diplomats say Chinese officials fear the prospect of thousands of activists promoting human rights and other controversial causes on the streets of Beijing. For the central government, this could be worryingly reminiscent of the embarrassing visit of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Western diplomats say that Prime Minister Li Peng ordered the venue shift after encountering opposition from NGO groups during a UN conference on poverty in Copenhagen in March.

Ostensibly, the Chinese organizers say that the original Forum site had "structural problems."

But critics are enraged, charging that China wants to restrict the participants and interfere with the extensive interplay and lobbying between the two meetings that has come to characterize such events.

"This [controversy] caught people off-guard," says Rachel Lostumbo of the International Campaign for Tibet, one of the NGOs still trying to get credentials for the meeting.

In acquiescing to the Huairou site, the NGO and UN officials won Chinese pledges to allow the 36,000 expected participants instead of the 20,000 Beijing had insisted on; provide adequate facilities in one fenced-in area rather than scattering them around; set up closed-circuit television links and a regular bus shuttle service to the official UN conference an hour's drive away; provide telecommunications facilities for both meetings; and house most of the NGO participants in Huairou.

In announcing the agreement, Supatra Masdit, convenor of the NGO Forum, said she was satisfied that "the most critical issues regarding the Huairou site had been reasonably resolved."

Still, questions remain about how tightly China will try to control the event. Also pending is the major issue of granting credentials and visas to some of the more controversial activists. Earlier, almost 500 groups were denied the right to attend. Those applications are now under appeal and are expected to be acted on at a meeting of a special UN council in July.

Critics say the controversies raise questions about whether China is ready to host major international events. The disputes have interfered "with the real purpose of the meeting ... to highlight the women's movement and women's problems," says a Western diplomat here.

Meanwhile, Huairou is a hive of renovation. In front of the cinema, which is being refitted as a meeting hall, a giant sign exhorts residents: "Welcome to participate in developing and constructing Huairou."

Nearby, bordering the Kang De Le Bodybuilding and Relaxation Center, intense construction activity goes on behind a sign in red Chinese characters: "Go all out for 100 days to greet the world women's meeting."

Here a new six-story, four-star hotel is under construction to house more upscale delegates. Other delegates will have to stay in downscale hotels, school dormitories, and other accommodations. It is rumored that the 5,000 Chinese delegates will be housed separately to minimize contact with foreign groups.

Behind the new hotel, authorities are planning a 6,000-seat temporary canopy-covered stadium where the forum will hold its daily plenary meetings.

"Before this meeting, many people didn't even know where Huairou was," says a resident. "Now we're on the map."

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