When Ma Xiaoxin heard that a world conference was coming to China to consider the problems of women, she was glad.
She had a problem of her own that she thought the conference might like to consider. A Chinese government surgeon had botched an operation on her eyes, and she couldn’t get the hospital to correct it.
Ma obtained the name of a conference delegate, a woman in London, and wrote her a letter.
The letter came back in July marked “Incomplete address.” Ma checked the London address; it was complete and accurate in every way.
A couple of weeks later, on Aug. 2, a policeman knocked at Ma’s apartment door. He wanted to know why Ma needed to speak to a delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women.
Ma was a senior engineer for a government ministry, the policeman noted, once he was in her living room, sipping tea. Didn’t she know, he asked, that delegates to the women’s conference were prostitutes?
Ma, 62 and a grandmother, said she didn’t care about their occupations. “I just want to tell them my story,” she said firmly.
The interception of Ma’s letter and the follow-up visit by the policeman are part of an extraordinary effort by the Chinese government to seal off the women’s conference - and its pesky pluralistic spirit - from the women of China.
Every day for the last week, the state news agency, Xinhua, has released reams of information about women in China. On Saturday, for example, Xinhua featured a story about a woman who always has shared household duties with her husband. “Sometimes, my husband does more than I do,” said the 42-year-old woman, an electrical engineer.
But the type of information Ma Xiaoxin wanted to disclose to the delegates is not contained in the news dispatches. And Ma Xiaoxin cannot contact the delegates to give it to them herself.
In hotels, the delegates are isolated in separate wings guarded by Chinese police. They are whisked to conference sites by shuttle buses for conference participants only. Ma cannot visit the conference site because she does not have a pass.
Since Ma was unable to contact delegates, she started explaining her problem to the visiting policeman.
She had arranged for cosmetic surgery on her face, she said, to remove the bags under her eyes. But a government surgeon had botched the job.
She told the officer that thousands of other women also have suffered from inexperienced government surgeons in China and that they and women in other developing countries need legislation and insurance to protect them.
Ma pointed to her eyes - to the bandage by her right eye, which still droops three operations after the disastrous procedure on May 13, 1993, that left her looking like a strange creature, her bottom eyelids sagging disastrously low, revealing half moons of red tissue. Her eyelids still do not close properly.
She took out her small picture album, an album she carries with her nearly everywhere. She showed it to the police officer. “This is what I looked like after the operation,” Ma said. “Like a monster.”
“The botched cosmetic surgery on my eyes made me suffer a lot,” Ma said. “I want the hospital to correct its mistake. I want legislation to be passed so other women are spared this suffering.”
“If the delegates come to visit you,” the policeman asked, “what will you tell them?”
Ma said she’d tell them about her operation. She’d show them the pictures of herself after the operation.
“I’ll just give them the facts,” Ma said.
The officer asked if he could write a report about their talk. Ma agreed. The officer wrote a page-long statement, including Ma’s promise to “state only the facts.”
The police officer asked Ma to sign the statement.
She signed it. She has heard nothing since - and does not expect to see any of the delegates.