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Women's groups say Chinese red tape may bar them from U.N. conference


UNITED NATIONS -- One month before the Fourth International Conference on Women is due to open in Beijing, thousands of official delegates and representatives of independent organizations say they are unable to obtain visas and fear that China is effectively barring them from the event by setting up bureaucratic barriers.

The official conference and a parallel forum for nongovernmental organizations have been mired for months in problems with the Chinese government. Between them, the two events are expected to draw as many as 50,000 people, the largest international gathering ever held by the United Nations.

Beijing appears to be having second thoughts about lobbying for a big U.N. conference, which draws hundreds of social-action groups, a number of them dedicated to human rights issues.

"Every day something new happens," said Rachel Kyte of the International Women's Health Coalition in New York, one of a number of coordinating organizations receiving calls for help from grass-roots groups demanding action from the United Nations.

Officials at U.N. headquarters in New York, including Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, say there is nothing the United Nations can do to intrude in Chinese government decisions.

Gertrude Mongella, the Tanzanian politician who is secretary-general of the conference, said Friday that she knew it would be "a great challenge to organize a conference in China."

But, speaking to a meeting of African organizations at U.N. headquarters, she implied that there was little officials could do but take the Chinese at their word.

"This is not a conference on China," she said. "It is a conference on women."

Since March, Chinese officials have moved the independent forum from Beijing to an underdeveloped tourist region at Huairou, an hour's drive from the main conference, and have blocked the attendance of Tibetan and some Taiwanese women's organizations.

Officials in Beijing said the new site for the unofficial conference, known as the NGO Forum, could accommodate only 10,000 people at a time. The forum's organizers expect 36,000 participants.

An additional 10,000 to 15,000 people are expected to attend the official conference. The NGO Forum opens Aug. 30 and ends Sept. 8; the main conference begins Sept. 4. and ends Sept. 15.

China's embassies and consulates tell callers that they have been ordered not to accept visa applications until applicants approved by the conference organizers receive letters from the Chinese confirming hotel reservations. These letters are now being sent, Chinese officials said in Beijing.

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