Two days before the opening of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, leaders of the parallel forum here delivered an ultimatum to their Chinese hosts Saturday, warning that if security forces did not cease their intense surveillance of participants within 24 hours, they could close the forum down.
With nearly 30,000 women gathered here for a bonanza of international networking and open workshops, the demand by leaders of the Non-Governmental Organizations Forum on Women that security agents back off intensified a sense of crisis among United Nations and other officials that their long-planned conference could be ruined by unruly hosts.
Outrage over pervasive surveillance - for a fourth day participants complained that they were aggressively filmed, followed and harassed, although Chinese officials denied the accusations - came to a boil at a news conference where members of the forum’s leadership committee issued their ultimatum.
“If they do not comply, we will go back to our constituencies and ask: Do you want to cancel, do you want to boycott, do you want to riot, or what?” said Salamo Fuliavi, a member of the committee. “If they say let’s go home, that’s what it means.”
Concern over the brazenly pushy behavior by security agents was echoed by senior members of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. conference, including Timothy Wirth, undersecretary of state for global affairs, who said he thought the integrity of the meeting was being threatened.
“If they continue this, they are going to find themselves making the conference extremely difficult,” Wirth said of the Chinese organizers. “They are meeting a lot of frustration and concern from people on how they are handling this.”
With first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton scheduled to arrive in Beijing early Tuesday, Wirth and other members of the U.S. delegation seemed eager to defuse the crisis so that Mrs. Clinton’s participation is not swallowed by an unraveling of the U.N. conference, which opens on Monday and runs through Sept. 15.
In Washington, Calvin Mitchell, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said White House officials are “obviously following the events carefully” and added that “at this point I am unaware of any change in her schedule.”
Mrs. Clinton, who is leaving from Hawaii on Sunday, plans to address the U.N. conference in Beijing on Tuesday, then speak before the non-governmental forum here later in the day on women’s need for better health care, political rights and economic opportunity.
Until Saturday, organizers of the non-governmental forum, which is scheduled to run through Sept. 8, have tried to downplay the practical difficulties they have encountered, so their public turnaround and 24-hour ultimatum marked a remarkable shift to a head-on confrontation with their Chinese hosts.
Numerous participants who attended outdoor workshops held under white canvas tents on the 100-acre site said that men routinely approached the meetings with video cameras and focused closely on their faces and note pads.
Surveillance was particularly heavy at a workshop this morning where exiled Tibetan women argued with Chinese-sponsored participants from the region over human rights and environmental conditions in Tibet.
Other participants said they endured obvious surveillance at nearly every workshop they attended, as well as at meetings in hotels that were disrupted.
“We saw that there was a pattern of surveillance, both here at the workshops and in the hotels,” said Irene Santiago, executive director of the forum. “We did not want the whole security apparatus there.”
Authorities have sharply cut back transportation to and from the non-governmental forum site in Huairou, which is about 35 miles from Beijing, and Saturday banned all taxis from the main U.N. conference site at the Asian Games Village in Beijing, which one security officer described as an effort to protect delegates from unreliable taxi drivers.
In Huairou, security officers have confiscated videotapes and printed material from workshops, and ordered the stopping of translations of some speeches that touch upon human rights.
Ms. Santiago said these actions marked a clear violation of the agreement signed between U.N. and Chinese organizers earlier this year which, among other things, specified that there be no security presence on the forum site.
Yet it was not clear what kind of action the leadership committee might actually take. With many participants no doubt reluctant to abandon the forum, and with many others exasperated by the behavior of Chinese agents, Santiago was careful to say that no decision would be made before noon on Sunday, when the committee’s 19 members are scheduled to assess the situation.
With a format so deeply rooted in free speech and movement taking place in a country where political activity is so tightly controlled by Communist authorities, perhaps such a confrontation was inevitable.
“The Chinese have to understand that the idea of a U.N. conference is the free flow of ideas,” said Melinda Kimble, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.
Yet Chinese leaders are unused to allowing any unscripted political gathering to occur, apparently concerned that any open discussion could include direct criticism of China’s Communist Party rule, a point of sensitivity that often seems to verge on paranoia.
Late Saturday night, the officer in charge of security at Huairou denied that the police had followed or conducted surveillance on any participants.