Hillary Clinton in China

September 07, 1995

Hillary Rodham Clinton championed the downtrodden women of the Third World in her speeches at the Fourth World Conference of Women and its Non-Governmental Organizations Forum. She carried forward U.S. relations with China in the confrontational spirit in which she found them. By and large, she did Americans proud.

That, pretty much, is what she went for. There are many agendas at the twin women's conferences in and near Beijing. Some are radical and some conservative. Some are women's issues and others are causes advanced by stressing the women's angle to them. And one of the agendas, for the political figures there, is playing to the home folks.

Mrs. Clinton's role is difficult for foreigners to fathom. She is not a high government official, exactly, or a queen, exactly, but shares some of the attributes of each for the duration of her husband's term. She should be accepted as a high U.S. government spokesman; high officials surround her. Foreigners can be excused for confusion, which Americans share.

And so, while Mrs. Clinton excited many women at the non-governmental conference in the mud of Huairou, saying what they wanted to hear, she was less prominent there than American media make out. We cover our own; so do the rest of the world's media. It is a tribute to her annoyance and celebrity value that Chinese security goons at Huairou kept two of her retinue, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, out in the rain and the mud.

But, to a majority of oppressed women from Third World societies who had found their way to Huairou, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan -- among the many delegates to Beijing who are legitimate and elected high officials of their own countries' governments -- is a greater spokesman. Though born to wealth and position as Mrs. Clinton is not, she is from an Islamic society, which Mrs. Clinton is not, and elected in her own right as head of her party to lead her country, which Mrs. Clinton is not.

Ms. Bhutto, too, spoke for women as professionals and as mothers. She was more conservative than many feminists and Europeans. She, too, was talking for the home folks. That includes Islamic clergy unhappy with her role and generals wary of her politics. She has a more difficult row to hoe than Mrs. Clinton.

It's good that Mrs. Clinton went to China. Critics who opposed the trip had the symbolism all wrong. But her visit did not greatly affect the politics of the conference or the document that will emerge. She was just one of many delegates. In purporting to bring the message of the U.S. to the Women's Conference, she really brought its message back home. That, too, was the idea.

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