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Mrs. Clinton becomes thorn in side of China


HUAIROU, China -- When it looked as if Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn't come to Beijing for the United Nations World Conference on Women, the Chinese seemed slighted.

When she leaves today, they'll probably think "good riddance."

Ever since the first lady arrived, she has been nothing but trouble for the Chinese government. Yesterday, she continued her courtship of grass-roots rights organizations, and she and her entourage got a firsthand glimpse of the organizational nightmare that has troubled two parallel women's conferences here over the past week.

Members of her entourage -- including Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services, and Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China -- were denied access to the auditorium where she spoke, forcing them to wait outside in driving rain while she gave a rousing pep talk to 3,000 women inside.

Unlike Tuesday, when she addressed the official United Nations World Conference on Women, yesterday's speech was to representatives of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations that are meeting in this farm town an hour's drive north of Beijing.

Some of the women rose at 4 a.m. to hear her talk, waiting in the rain for hours. Many were turned away.

Guards opened only one door, creating a dangerous crush of drenched and testy delegates eager to hear Mrs. Clinton speak. When they finally got inside, they had to wait an hour as chaotic traffic and security arrangements delayed Mrs. Clinton's arrival.

In a report released last night, the official Xinhua news agency blamed the U.S. delegation for the confusion. The agency said that Chinese officials wanted to go ahead with the original outdoor venue, despite the rain. "But the U.S. side insisted that the speech would be canceled if it was still arranged at the playground," Xinhua said.

"Under these circumstances, the Chinese side immediately took emergency measures, and made the center ready in a very short period of time. Many participants said that they were indignant at the act of the U.S. side," Xinhua said.

The mood in the hall, however, was anything but sour.

Led by Shirley May Staten, a singer with the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, the women sang spirituals, swaying back and forth in an increasingly emotional atmosphere. For many, it was the culmination of a weeklong series of workshops and efforts to lobby the U.N. conference in Beijing, which is drawing up a platform to improve the status of women worldwide.

"When we sing, we must sing for those women who can't come," Ms. Staten said, referring to the thousands of women denied travel visas into China to attend the gathering.

The room was a microcosm of the irritants and joy felt by many of the women.

Glum-looking plainclothes Chinese security agents took up rows seats while women waited outside in the rain or stood in aisles. Chinese women who were delegates were quickly

shepherded in and out of the hall, minimizing their exposure to foreign women or foreign ideas.

Yet the mood was exuberant as the women anticipated the arrival of the person they clearly viewed as their champion. On Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton had defied predictions that she would not risk angering Chinese authorities. Instead, she criticized their suppression of free speech at the conference and other roadblocks put in the women's way.

"I admire her. It's the first time that a first lady is interested in global women's issues," said Zahra Ramdan, a delegate from the Polisario Front, a group fighting Morocco for control of Western Sahara.

Ms. Ramdan, who lives in the section of the Western Sahara under Polisario control, traveled to Beijing via Algeria, Spain and Belgium. "She's got guts," Ms. Ramdan said, "so I had to hear her speak."

When she finally arrived, Mrs. Clinton repeated her criticisms of the conferences' organization. "In addition to the weather, which is beyond anyone's control, I know you've had to endure severe frustrations here," she said to huge applause.

Most of the speech was spent extolling the nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, that have lobbied for change and implemented development programs over the past decades. NGOs, she said, would hold governments' feet to the fire and make sure they kept their promises.

Although Mrs. Clinton has been the talk of the conferences for the past two days, she has been invisible in China's state-run media -- except for last night's blast by Xinhua.

Her comments have not been carried in official newspapers, and the evening television news has given her visit only fleeting mention.

The treatment her delegation received yesterday reinforced the feeling that she is being snubbed.

Ms. Shalala and Mr. Lord had to argue in the rain for 30 minutes before getting in to the building. Mrs. Clinton's press secretary, Lisa Caputo, never made it past the guards.

Mrs. Clinton is in China when relations between the two countries are at their lowest point in years, as the two countries differ on how to treat Taiwan and what China sees as unwarranted criticism of its human rights record.

Mrs. Clinton only decided to come to China after Beijing released Chinese-American human rights activist Harry Wu.

But in her first speech here, the first lady attacked human rights violators in general and specifically criticized the Chinese government for refusing entry to many women who wanted to attend the conferences.

Her comments on human rights also seemed directed at China, when she said, "Freedom means . . . not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of the peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions."

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