Commentary: Beyond Beijing's Cue Cards

Ruth Enero

"Equality, Peace, and Development" were the themes of the 1995 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum and the parallel Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW). At least, that was what the advance publicity proclaimed. Throughout Beijing and along the 50 kilometer route to rural Huairou, huge blood-red Chinese/English banners echoed and expanded this theme. As further evidence that China had gone all out for the arrival of some 30,000 women's rights activists, billboards along major roads had giant cloth slip-covers with pro-woman slogans. But did the China conference work toward the advancement of women?

Many reviewers will call the August 30 through September 15 China conferences a success. They extrapolate that because of the sheer numbers of NGO and United Nations women delegates "from every continent, of every nationality, of every race, of every hue and size and age," the way has automatically been paved for compassionate solutions to what undermines women's lives.

But the power that controlled the women's conferences is more likely typified by the complimentary China Daily newspaper that was slid under delegates' hotel doors each day. It painted a continuous picture of a women-friendly China and heralded every aspect of the conference that bowed to Chinese government ideology. During the NGO forum, an "independent daily newspaper" was collectively underwritten by the European Union, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), and International Planned Parenthood (IPPF). One further printed brief available in Beijing, Earth Negotiations Bulletin, gave a banal reporting of the official daily status of the U.N. Platform for Action. It was funded by such sources as the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, the U.N. and Pew Charitable Trust. The characterization of "grassroots" would not seem to apply.

No sanctioned news sources acknowledged the climate of censorship and oppression incurred by being hosted by China. Yet foreign government agencies, including the U.S. State Department, sent their NGO and U.N. delegates abroad with dire warnings on ramifications possible for those who offended the Chinese government. Every delegate risked "imprisonment, expulsion, passport confiscation, or confiscation of personal belongings" if her conduct offended the vague guidelines of Chinese hosts. These were hardly the surroundings that encouraged the democratic process or free speech.

Even conference Secretary-General Gertrude Mongella was intent on keeping the lid on criticism of China or any inadequacies of the conference. She did not acknowledge, for instance, that the 5,000 All China Women's Federation (ACWF) members who represented Chinese NGOs were directly responsible to the Chinese Communist Party and carefully selected to promote their government's agenda. While the FWCW was not intended to be a conference on the state of women's rights in China, Mongella's enforced silence on China's abysmal human rights record set a tone that is unbecoming to the supposed compassion of women.

Considering the push for silence and accommodation to the Chinese host, credit should be paid to U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her September 4 speech at the Conference opening broke strong taboos and engendered criticism from abortion defenders at all levels. Her condemnation of female infanticide, male child preference, forced abortion and sterilization can be counted as the United States' best contribution at Beijing. Whether these human rights abuses -- and others -- will continue to be practiced in China with funding from U.N. agencies, U.S. corporations and others remains to be seen. Neither Clinton's speech nor the U.N. Platform for Action are binding on any government.

With regard to the Platform for Action: 80% of it was not contested (not "bracketed"). It is important to realize that the bulk of the document refers to programs most women support. To name a few areas for which lobbying was uncontested: empowering women to breast-feed, improving literacy rates, reparations to "comfort women" (forced sex providers during war time), ending sexual harassment, finding solutions to world hunger and poverty, and removing landmines from former war zones. Natural Family Planning was recognized in the Platform as an acceptable method of spacing pregnancies. A commitment was made to put a value on "unwaged work" (housework) as part of a country's GNP. Each of these portions of the Platform are supportive of women.

But the remaining 20% of language was contested and leaves strong doubts on the long-term benefit of this conference "for women." Throughout the FWCW, Earth Negotiations Bulletin reported that terms such as "empower women," "safe motherhood," "violence against women," and other phrases including "educating the girl child" came under serious scrutiny. What the Bulletin does not say is that these terms are cleverly used as wedges for population control and abortion. Sadly too, the Bulletin fails to report when the U.N. Platform has been worded to deceive women on, for example, the connections between abortion and breast cancer.

For all the consensus that is spoken of with regard to the final Document that emerged, there were four hours of "reservations" (dissenting comments) before the 1995 FWCW was gaveled to a close. The conference is over. Meanwhile, the job of pro-life feminists everywhere continues: to be the voices that speak of the connection between violence inside and outside the womb. Yet another U.N. Conference is already planned for June, 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey.

The same moneyed interests who were in Beijing (and Cairo, and Rio before that) are preparing to move their tents to Turkey for Habitat, to talk once again of "improving" women's lives. While we all appreciate that redesigned housing could make women's lives better, the motives of population controllers and multinational pharmaceutical corporations become suspect once again. Since I have seen the pros and cons first-hand as a visitor of one conference, I warily anticipate the next one.


The following is verbatim from PeaceNet Computer Network:

Topic 94 Message from Chinese woman

newsdesk IGC Networks Healines Digest 9:29 AM Oct 12, 1995

From: IGC News Desk <>

/*Written 11:38 AM Oct 12, 1995 by gn:ipb in*/

/*---------"Message from Chinese woman"---------*/

Dear friends,

The following is a statement given to me during the UN Fourth World Conference on Women by a Chinese woman. She spoke with me about the problems of Chinese women during an NGO meeting. The next day she handed me copies of the following statement asking me to distribute them widely but also imploring me to ensure that they did not get into official hands. She gave me no personal information. I wanted to share her words with as many women as possible. The text is an exact reproduction of her original with no edits or changes. Please distribute this as widely as you can.


As a Chinese woman, I am extremely happy to attend the conference and feel empowered by women from all over the world. However, I feel sad for my other sisters who were excluded from the conference. To say that All Women's Federation of China is a non government organization (NGO) is a joke. Everybody knows that All Women's federation is a ministry or branch of Chinese government. It is funded and controlled by the main body of Chinese government. Similarly, many other Chinese "NGOs" don't fit the criteria of non government organization. Unfortunately, I think majority of Chinese NGO delegates are from central and local All Women's Federation and other government related or controlled organizations. In this way, real non-governmental groups of Chinese women (refer to women who do not work directly for the government, such as regular women peasants and workers, women who do not want to be controlled by the government, etc.) were excluded form the conference. (Do Chinese women have the freedom to form a real non-government organization?)

In the NGO meeting, people were given a strong impression by Chinese delegates and pamphlets distributed that Chinese women have already obtained or already granted the equality; and they don't have the problems that women from other countries are facing, such as violence against women, unequality in employment, sexual harassment, etc. It appeared that most of the Chinese NGO delegates have taken a mission to produce this impression to the world. As a result, Chinese women's issues and serious problems were not exposed, nor discussed. Does this mean that Chinese women, no matter from the government or not, were silenced about their own issues and problems by the male dominated government.

As a Chinese women, I know that we are facing the increasing unequality from this male dominated society. Some old problems are not solved yet, new problems arise. It is true that the women's liberation imposed by communist party improved women's living condition and social status. However, the liberation didn't eliminate the institutional discrimination of women that prevent them from getting into the decision making class. The liberation didn't erase the profound feudal tradition that treat women as the second citizen, nor deprive (sic) women form rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, etc. The liberation didn't give the freedom for women to develop their own feminist theory that is independent of the Communist, in order to support their own movement. The liberation did signed women tripled loads of work, such as house work, reproduction and work outside the house. To gain the limited liberation, women has to work much harder than men and their domestic and reproductive responsibilities were still used as excuses to prevent them from getting promoted or obtaining a job that they are qualified for. Since the economic development, many old problems that were temporally controlled by the communist government reappears. Pornography, prostitution of women, and sexual transmitted diseases are increasing in an alarming speed. Modern concubine is secretly emerging. Many middle age women were laid off as victims of restructuring the labor force. Increasing amount of women in remote regions are sold for a few hundred US dollar to be some poor men's wives and be prisoned, raped and tortured by the husband who believe that she belong to him like a thing he bought . . .

By making some government branches into non government organizations is a way to exclude the non government groups. Denying the accessibility of non government groups helps to cover the issue and problems of Chinese women. These are obvious violation of women's right in attending the NGO conference and free expression. Covering women's issues and problems can only facilitates the existing unequality. Does the male dominated Chinese government actually care about women's issues? This reality truly reflects Chinese women's situation. They are tightly controlled and suppressed by the male dominated government. If an officer form all women's federation does not have the freedom to discuss women's issue, how can a regular women feel free to report a rape or complain a sexual harassment from her male boss (this society still have a system to make women feel shamed for the crime of men.). The control and suppression are true sexual discrimination and true unequality that male dominated Chinese government subjected to Chinese women, in the for the World Women's conference right.

This conference calls for women's action for equality, development and empowerment. How can Chinese women take action if their issues were not even raised? How can Chinese women take action under such tight control? What this male dominated government can do for Chinese women?

I know what is going on. But can I speak out?

I know that many women suffered from the existing unequality. Why can't they come to this conference to tell their stories to raise awareness about the issues and problems for the purpose of preventing the similar tragedy occur to other women.

How can I keep silent for such blunt discrimination and suppression of women in our women's conference?

A Chinese Woman September, 1995