People's Forum Meets The People's Republic

Grass-roots groups have proved to be real players at conferences like the one in Beijing on the world's women

FOR the People's Republic of China, hosting the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women holds more than a touch of poetic justice. The government wanted the prestige of this gathering after the tragedy of Tienanmen and the suppression of nascent political democracy. It seemed a way to overcome worldwide opprobrium. (At the same time and for the same reason, Beijing campaigned to be the site of the 1996 Olympic games.) Now tens of thousands of delegates, government representatives, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and interested individuals will converge on Beijing to discuss women's problems and to champion women's rights in a country where woman's status is low. The spin doctors in Beijing may not have gauged the effect of having the world community on the scene, not only with eyes and ears but also, inevitably, as carrier of the dissent virus. Months ago, as damage control, the hosts decided to split the participants. Official delegations from more than 150 countries and accredited groups from hundreds of established NGOs - about 7,000 delegates in all - will meet at the conference center in Beijing on Sept. 4. However, before the conference opens, perhaps 36,000 others under a distinctly unofficial umbrella called the NGO Forum will be allowed to hold an opening rally of their own in the capital, at which they intend to sound a stirring keynote for what is to follow. The forum will then move to a small town, 30 miles away, to do its multifarious thing in relative isolation. Its members are promised free access to the conference site, but there is no assurance that they will have facilities for their usual booths, workshops, and information centers - on women's education, commercial credit, and such things as global networking for community development. Or that these will be accessible to the Chinese public. Meanwhile, visas, documents, and hotel reservations needed to attend the forum have been issued sparingly and tardily. Most troubling for the regime must be that the word ''people's'' has a new, assertive meaning quite at odds with the cosmetic adjective that figures in misleading titles like the People's Republic. Not that the idea is so new. Alexis de Tocqueville, who took the measure of democracy in America in the 1830s, noted a unique condition. On the basis of egalitarianism peculiar to North America, people built an active relationship with their state - through private groups busy at many public things: religious, cultural, professional, charitable, and civic improvement. These were clearly forerunners of today's NGOs, which increasingly play a role in international as well as domestic affairs. Many, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, devote themselves to humanitarian relief. Many more lobby for causes. They are also watchdogs, as France, approaching its nuclear tests in the Pacific, knows well. Some have become research organizations of high caliber. Deliberately outsiders, for the most part, they can help the establishment with their expertise, and in reaching people at the grass roots. The newly user-friendly World Bank sidesteps usurious money lenders as well as red tape in granting micro-loans of $100 to impoverished families and small groups of village women. It gets them started on income-producing self-employment at livestock and poultry raising, handicrafts and textiles, trading and shopkeeping. The bank channels the money through local NGO networks and registers superior performance in loan repayment. The UN Development Program now uses the same device. And 30 percent of US Agency for International Development funds is distributed through private organizations rather than governments. SOME NGOs are flaky, some are one-person operations. Some - think of the ''militias'' - are potentially dangerous. But the NGO Forum has been a goad for action at international conferences where people tend to be more content to talk. It emerged as a real player, an unconventional counter-conference, at the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and has done its thing at others since, with serious manifestoes and street theater, hunger strikes and fairs. The forum has worked no miracles, but its voice has been heard with growing respect. It is sometimes somber, sometimes shrill, a voice of democracy raised against being herded in the mass society of today's world. What better place to test it than in the People's Republic of China?

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