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Struggling 'Through Hell and High Water'

This article maybe a little old and at times make you reminise, but I think it gets to the point at the end. It is about the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women in China during 1995. A parallel conference was organized by NGOs but many women seeking to attend found their visa had complications and/or blocked. The Chinese Government took precautions against expected protests, including naked protests. The bug spray I thought was a nice touch.

China: Shutting out critics at the women's forum

China was ready for the feminists of the world. Taxi drivers were advised not to pick up any naked females who might try to flag them down. Hotels were issued cloaks to throw over the legions of strippers who were expected to arrive. Security guards, many of them fresh from the farm, were issued bug spray so that they wouldn't catch insect-borne AIDS from visiting lesbians. Welcome to China. ladies.

Delegates to the unofficial women's forum, which opened last week, knew they were in for a hard time. "We're expecting bad conditions-no work space, no computers," Isabel Stramwasser, a Canadian delegate, said before the conference began. "But we're also expecting 40,000 women who've gone through hell and high water to get there." As it turned out, there were plenty of difficulties at the conference site in Huairou, 90 minutes outside Beijing (when the promised buses were running, which wasn't often), and lots of high water. caused by torrential rain. But thousands of women never got there. With a combination of bureaueratic paralysis and deliberate political suppression. the Chinese government managed to exclude many women whose views it found inconvenient.

Western diplomats estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 delegates had been shut out. Many never received hotel confirmations, without which they were not allowed to pick up their visas. "This is more than a bureaucratic accident," charged Bella Abzug, a former congresswoman from New York who was allowed to attend. "This is an intentional, indirect way to limit our numbers."

The Huairou conference was the one China didn't want, an eclectic gathering of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. The other meeting, which starts this week, is the official United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, a plum for the Chinese, who campaigned hard for the right to host it. That meeting starts on a happier note. Hillary Rodham Clinton leads the U.S. delegation, reflecting a slight warming of relations between Washington and Beijing. Agreeing to disagree on the many issues that divide them -- human rights, nuclear testing, arms sales, the status of Taiwan--the United States and China were at least talking to each other again. Beijing promised to send back its ambassador, who was withdrawn two months ago when Washington allowed the president of Taiwan to make an unofficial visit. A summit was in the works for President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, probably next month at the United Nations.

But there was nothing the Americans could do to get China to open its doors to all of the NGO women. "We can only cajole and plead," said a State Department official. China excluded the entire delegation from Niger, one of the few countries to have formal relations with Taiwan. More than 20 Taiwanese and Tibetan groups were denied access to the conference. American actresses Jane Fonda and Sally Field reportedly were unable to get visas.

Low turnout: So many delegates were kept away from the conference that many seminars and workshops had to be canceled for lack of participants. (The most popular discussion group appeared to be one on the O. J. Simpson case, held in a crowded tent.) The delegates who made it to Huairou found the Chinese imposing rules to restrict the expression of unwelcome opinions. Demonstrations were officially confined to an area grandly described as the "Parade Ground," an asphalt slab smaller than a basketball court.

But the women refused to be put in their place. One group showed a videotape about Tibet, and when Chinese security men seized the cassette, enraged members of the audience took it back by force and spirited it away. The opening keynote address was another videotape, brought into China by stealth, containing a message from Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident who has stood up to a military regime that is fast friends with Beijing. "It is not the prerogative of men alone to bring light to this world," she told the delegates. Defying their Chinese overlords, nine exiled Tibetan women staged a protest in Huairou, their mouths gagged with scarves to represent the repression of their homeland. Dozens of delegates chanted their support. Posters appeared honoring Phuntsog Nyidron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun imprisoned for her support of the exiled Dalai Lama. WANTED; FREEDOM, it said--an idea China's leaders apparently could neither grasp nor stamp out.

PHOTO (COLOR): Beyond the confines of the official 'Parade Ground': Exiled Tibetan women wear gags to protest Beijing's repression of their homeland