Undeterred by an isolated setting, strict government restrictions and afternoon rain, more than 20,000 women attending an international women’s conference here Thursday managed more free expression in their first full day of meetings than has been seen in China since the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
Defying a government ban, a small group of Tibetan exiles showed a film depicting imprisonment of Tibetan nuns and forced sterilization of Tibetan women. When two plainclothes Chinese security agents attempted to confiscate the film “for safekeeping,” they were surrounded by 20 women and forced to return it.
Outside a cinema meeting hall Thursday morning, 15 foreign representatives of Amnesty International held up photographs of 12 women, including two Chinese, who they claimed were victims of human rights abuses.
The demonstrators, who later showed a film that included an interview with a jailed Tibetan nun and an exiled Tiananmen Square protester, ignored the megaphone plea by a Chinese policewoman to move to a designated protest ground.
Meanwhile, in a school ground meeting site, a Japanese women’s group unfurled a banner and distributed petitions protesting nuclear testing by France and by China, which detonated a nuclear explosion in its western region earlier in August.
“Somebody warned us that we could be arrested for this,” said a smiling Toshiko Ishimaru, 41, with the Women’s Democratic Club of Japan that staged the demonstration.
Such defiant outbreaks of free speech and criticism of Chinese policy were just what officials feared when they decided to move the Aug. 30-Sept. 8 Non-Governmental Organizations Forum on Women to this sleepy suburb about 35 miles north of Beijing on the edge of the Great Wall of China.
But by keeping the meetings well away from the main Chinese public, the government has managed, so far, to limit the potential political spillover. For the most part, the Chinese news media has played down the women’s meeting.
The official People’s Daily newspaper noted the opening of this meeting in an article on its second page. Television, meanwhile, concentrated on the singing and dancing that accompanied the opening ceremonies.
The forum, made up of representatives from a range of women’s interest groups, overlaps with the more formal U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women that starts Monday in Beijing.
The isolated setting and afternoon showers failed to dampen the enthusiasm of forum delegates, whose number is expected to swell to 30,000 next week. Women danced, sang, argued, embraced and generally celebrated their gender. The more contentious intramural issues, centered on abortion and reproductive rights, were reserved for later in the conference.
The tone of the 10-day conference was set Thursday by a videotaped keynote address by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, from Myanmar (formerly Burma), that was smuggled into the conference by organizers. Myanmar’s military junta maintains close relations with the Chinese government. The official Myanmar delegation to the U.N. Women’s conference is a male army general.
“Without tolerance,” Suu Kyi said, “the foundation for democracy and respect for human rights cannot be strengthened, and the achievement of peace will remain elusive.”
The most glaring absence at the conference was large numbers of Chinese delegates. Chinese security guards far outnumbered Chinese women delegates.