Bugged in Beijing

September 08, 1995|By Maggie Gallagher

THE THING about the Chinese is, that they are so, well, communist.

At the U.N. conference on women, hundreds of Americans are getting an unsettling refresher course in communism, which events in Beijing remind us is not entirely dead after all. Not when it still retains its iron grip on one-quarter of the world's population.

A delegate who left her hotel room for a stroll was ordered back by a policeman. Another, according to news reports, says she returned to her hotel room to find men with walkie-talkies going through her belongings. Just here to pick up the laundry, they explained. One journalist I know reports her hotel maid follows her everywhere.

Then there are the official pronouncements ranging from the outrageous to the bizarre. Protests, for example, are permitted only so long That communists should act like communists, I can understand, but why is the U.S. effectively acquiescing in this unseemly behavior?

as they do not "attack or slander the state leaders of the host country." Police, who carry bed sheets to toss over any naked protesters who wander by, warned Chinese citizens to wear bug spray, "because flies might transmit AIDS carried by lesbian attendees."

Whose idea was it to hold a conference in Beijing anyway?

The harassment of so-called NGOs women -- from nongovernment organizations -- is particularly intense. Maoists frankly don't know what to make of an organization not under any government's control. Visas for many American women, particularly from conservative groups likely to challenge China's one-child, coercive abortion policy, appear to be mysteriously clogged up in the bureaucratic pipeline.

That communists should act like communists, I can understand, but why is the U.S. effectively acquiescing in this unseemly behavior? Why is Hillary over there acting like this is a real, free, international conference on women?

It all leads one to suspect that China is not the only government that doesn't care for NGOs. It was the NGOs, after all, who threw a monkey wrench into the U.N. population conference in Cairo. They cobbled together a coalition of Catholics and Muslims that managed to stop the worse excesses of the population police, such as declaring abortion a basic human right and portraying children as the cause of the poverty they are forced to endure. (Talk about blaming the victims!)

Cairo was a turning point: As conservatives organize and find new leaders, new coalitions and new voices on sexual issues, international conferences once conducted as cozy clubs for like-minded professional bureaucrats will instead become forums for vigorous intellectual debate. A fitting symbol of this transformation is the Vatican's surprise decision to appoint Mary Ann Glendon, a distinguished Harvard law professor, as the head of its delegation to the U.N. conference on women.

Professor Glendon's life has not been a cloistered one. In her 20s, she headed off to Mississippi to fight for civil rights, and married (in a civil ceremony) an African-American lawyer with whom she had a daughter. Later divorced, she subsequently married Edward Lev in the Catholic church, and her family grew by two more daughters (one adopted from Korea). The author of nine books, including "Abortion and Divorce in the Western World," she faced the usual obstacles career women of her generation experienced, yet she calls feminism "obsolete." "Some of my best friends are radical feminists," she says, but the current feminist movement "has made itself marginal to the concerns of most women."

Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice, understands that in picking Professor Glendon, Pope John Paul II has tapped a truly dangerous mind: "He picked a person . . . who can speak the language of women, who is modern, smart and professional, who can go toe to toe with Hillary," she reportedly said.

Actually, Hillary, arguably Arkansas' best female lawyer, is likely to find herself intellectually outgunned by the Vatican's stealth weapon: a first-rate scholar who knows how women today really live.

Maggie Gallagher is a syndicated columnist.

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