Women confront China

September 03, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Sun Staff Correspondent

HUAIROU, China -- A dispute between organizers of a United Nations-sponsored conference on women and Chinese authorities broke into the open yesterday when conference leaders threatened to cancel their sessions unless China stopped harassing the participants.

The threat from the Forum on Women came after several days of heavy-handed surveillance by China's security forces, which have videotaped and photographed meetings, confiscated material and prevented participants from meeting with journalists.

Those actions apparently violated an agreement between China and the United Nations, which had been assured that the 100 acres of conference rooms and exhibition booths would be regarded as U.N. territory for the duration of the conference -- and thus that international standards of free speech would be respected.

After a two-hour meeting yesterday with organizers of the forum, China agreed to reduce the presence of security officers and lift the restrictions on meeting with journalists. But organizers, clearly doubtful that China will live up to its word, threatened to take further action if conditions did not improve before the end of today.

"If there's compliance and all is well, then we can go on," Irene Santiago, the executive director of the Forum on Women, told a news conference. "But by midday [today], if there's any problem in compliance, the facilitating committee is going to go back to our constituencies and discuss appropriate action."

Some 25,000 delegates -- most of them women -- have arrived from around the world to attend the week-long Forum on Women, which is being run by nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Their meeting is designed in turn to influence a once-a-decade U.N. World Conference on Women, which opens tomorrow. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is among the expected visitors.

The threat of a boycott highlighted the frustration felt by participants at the NGO forum, especially those working on sensitive issues in China, such as human rights, lesbianism or political freedoms in Tibet.

In a tent where lesbians have been holding workshops, for example, Chinese authorities stole Chinese-language material. Tibetans, meanwhile, saw videotapes confiscated, and participants in a forum on human rights were videotaped and photographed.

On Friday, Chinese authorities banned a special-edition newspaper published by journalists from around the world -- a regular feature of major U.N. conferences. The newspaper reappeared yesterday after editors agreed to leave out a column that China had not approved in advance.

"I can't understand how in a U.N. site there are fundamental violations of human rights going on," said Dorothy Q. Thomas with New York-based Human Rights Watch/Asia. "The security is supposed to protect us, not intimidate us."

There was a strong protest from the U.S. delegation, with Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth calling on the United Nations to be firm with China and not accept surveillance of participants in U.N. conferences.

Mr. Wirth warned that China was ruining a chance to improve its international image: "The Chinese have here an enormous opportunity to show the world what they can do and how they can organize, and I think they are incurring an awful lot of frustration and wrath from people in the way they are handling this."

The flare-up came after weeks of unease in China over holding a gathering dedicated to improving the status of women.

While China is formally committed to gender equality, officials were worried that they wouldn't be able to control the free-wheeling nature of such conferences, where scores of interest groups distribute information on topics as varied as environmental protection, human rights, domestic violence and agricultural production. Information in China is tightly controlled, with publications having to pass party censors.

Despite the dispute over freedom of speech, most women seemed more angry over poor planning. Workshops were sometimes canceled with no warning, and space allotted was too small, leading to instances in which people would go to one workshop, find it canceled and find the alternatives closed for lack of space.

Many women, however, said that despite the problems, they were enjoying themselves in Beijing and able to exchange information about women's issues. Nguyen Bao Mai, a delegate from an NGO in Vietnam, said she had attended useful forums on the growth of prostitution in East Asia and trading in women.

"There are problems," Ms. Mai said, "but I'm afraid they are diverting our attention from other women's issues. We should try to ignore the problems and stay focused on the women's issues."

Indeed, women seemed undeterred by the security officers, who were hard to miss, with their yellow T-shirts and walkie-talkies.

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