Chinese women heard little at U.N. conference

September 12, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- One reason for holding two mammoth women's conferences in China was the belief that it would spread new ideas to the fifth of the world's female population living here.

But as the last of the two gatherings comes to a close this week, not many Chinese women will have gotten the message, much less been allowed to act on it.

Documents obtained by The Sun, as well as interviews with dozens of Chinese delegates and staff members, reveal that China's propaganda and security apparatus fixed a tight hold over the Chinese participants, thoroughly indoctrinating them before and after meetings, as well as directing their movements during the two-week conferences that drew more than 30,000 foreigners.

One small propaganda textbook written especially for the conferences told Chinese delegates to be constantly mindful that the party is in control of the country and has to keep a tight grip on society. In women's rights, as in all else, success would derive from understanding leader Deng Xiaoping's theory of socialism, the textbook said.

"Every women's organization must resolutely study Comrade Deng Xiaoping's basic line of building socialism with Chinese characteristics by adhering to the principle of 'one center and two points,' " instructed the book, using Communist Party jargon for developing the economy while maintaining the party's grip.

The volunteers, recruited from university campuses to work for two months without pay, said they had meetings twice a day with Communist Party cadres, where their duty to shield China from foreign influences was hammered into them.

"Hosting these meetings is a great honor for China," said Li Chengwei, a 22-year-old student, "but it can also lead to trouble, so we're on guard."

Nominally recruited to help delegates, the volunteers' priorities were highlighted last week during an incident when a Brazilian environmental group put up a huge poster in Portuguese blaming U.S. enterprises for destruction of the Amazon rain forest.

Two young volunteers frantically asked Westerners to translate the unfamiliar language. Finally, after asking a Brazilian delegate for a translation, they ran over to an older female party cadre to report in Chinese: "Teacher, it doesn't concern us, it's against the U.S.A."

The Public Security Bureau, which acts as a combination secret police and counterintelligence agency, focused most of its attention on the Non-Governmental Organizations Forum on Women, a gathering of 25,000 women from around the world that was held an hour's drive north of Beijing in the farming town of Huairou from Aug. 30 to Sept. 8.

Besides keeping a close eye on foreign participants, public security agents also led daily debriefing sessions of the Chinese participants.

According to Chinese participants, security agents sat in on morning and evening "strategy sessions." During evening sessions, the Chinese NGOs, represented as grass-roots organizations independent of the government, had to tell government authorities whom they had met during the day and what they had discussed. Morning sessions laid out the NGOs marching orders -- which workshops they would visit and which they should avoid.

"We were told to avoid any controversial topics," said a member of the All-China Women's Federation, the government "mass organization" that was host to the NGO forum. "The only delegates who could speak on sensitive topics were given speeches to memorize."

The Chinese NGO's orchestration seemed to be reflected at the workshops, according to Robin Munro of Human Rights Watch/Asia. At a family planning workshop, for example, no Chinese group spoke against China's one-child policy.

"It's not probable or credible that Chinese NGOs, if they were truly nongovernmental, would not speak on discussions about birth control," Mr. Munro said. Intensive surveillance by security agents, who videotaped, photographed and tape-recorded workshops, ensured the Chinese NGOs' compliance.

There were exceptions. At a discussion on women in politics, attempts by a Chinese government official to plead for time in getting women in high political positions were almost shouted down by Chinese delegates. "We've been hearing that for decades," one women said. "Now we want some action."

According to forum organizers, the surveillance and control tactics of the Chinese authorities violated United Nations' rules. The NGO forum was U.N.-sponsored, so the 100-acre grounds where it was held were supposed to be free-speech zones where delegates from around the world could freely exchange views and ideas.

The NGO conference ended last week. At the main gathering of government organizations, the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, which ends Friday, security also has been strict, with staff and delegates likewise indoctrinated with propaganda and slogans.

A woman who works in the Jinglun Hotel in downtown Beijing said police have conducted periodic sweeps, even of Chinese businesses with offices in the hotel, to make sure no conference material on women's issues is being spread.

"The police have warned us not to talk to the delegates, except for small talk," said the woman, who, typically, asked not to be identified.

Ordinary Beijing residents were unsure what to make of the spectacle. Some were curious about the meeting, thinking that something good must surely be coming out of an event the government was trying so hard to isolate.

Many others, however, seemed to be more cynical, spurred on, perhaps, by a government that used the opportunity to raise hotel prices and airfares 30 percent.

"The government is using this as a way to get back face after losing the bid to get the 2000 Olympics," said Kong Lihong, a customer at Pizza Hut in downtown Beijing. "No one knows what it's about, but it's a way for the government to show off its power."

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