BEIJING — Welcoming thousands of activists to this capital Tuesday for the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, Chen Muhua, China's top delegate to the event, declared, "Beijing is fully prepared. . . ."
Anticipating a rumored nude protest march here, security guards have been issued "modesty cloaks" to drape over women who may bare more than their souls. Notices warn citizens that in case of such a demonstration, "Do not look. Continue about your business."
Some policewomen assigned to patrol Huairou--the rural site of the lively adjunct forum for non-governmental groups--have been cautioned to use mosquito repellent so as not to contract AIDS, which the Chinese have fatuously suggested might be transmitted by mosquitoes that bite homosexual foreign delegates attending the conference.
"There are so many myths operating on so many levels here, it's hard not to believe it's a deliberate effort [by officials here] to discredit the women as crazy radicals not to be bothered with," observed one Western diplomat tracking the once-a-decade conference.
When Beijing bid in 1991 to host this global conference, Chinese leaders hoped it would help restore China's international prestige in the aftermath of the bloody 1989 Tian An Men Square crackdown.
Global notables, including First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, will convene Sept. 4-15 in Beijing to promote women's interests. With them will come almost 30,000 independent activists for the overlapping Non-Governmental Organizations Forum on Women, bringing the world's attention to China with them.
That may prompt Beijing to reconsider whether having this event here will be truly beneficial to its cause.
Along with more fanciful fears, the Chinese government must confront some real concerns--namely, vocal political criticism, normally suppressed here. While Chinese dissidents have been discreetly shipped out of town to keep them from speaking to the world's press, outside critics have seized the stage.
"This is the first time that Amnesty International has been allowed into China," Pierre Sane, the London-based human rights organization's secretary general, said Tuesday. "And sitting here in the capital of a country whose government has a grave human rights record, we cannot be silent."
China's leaders have tried to buffer "rabble-rousers" by moving the non-governmental activists an hour north of Beijing, separating them from the international leaders they would like to lobby as well as from the Chinese people.
The confusion of that last-minute move meant that almost 10,000 participants did not receive official visas in time for the meeting, said Supatra Masdit of Thailand, who has spent months planning and now heads the non-governmental forum. She expects 4,000 more people to show up anyway, without official accreditation.
Softening an earlier ban on protests, Beijing officials announced Tuesday that limited demonstrations may be conducted on a school ground in Huairou, as long as they don't "slander or attack" Chinese leaders or policies.
But officials are ensuring that the exchange of ideas will be limited.
Huairou is "under martial law," one forum participant observed wryly. The once-quiet farm town about 35 miles north of Beijing is ringed with police; the two roads to Beijing are restricted to conference traffic, and only those with special IDs are allowed to enter the site. Strict security shut out even Supatra Masdit, who did not yet have her badge.
State paranoia and foreign visitors' culture shock have combined to make the pre-conference atmosphere tense. "The bureaucracy and control is worse than I've ever dealt with--and I work in a prison," noted Stacey Kabat, an American activist who campaigns against domestic violence.
Outside the forum site, banners and billboards declare, "All of Beijing wishes a successful Women's Conference." But some, like a fruit seller calling herself Old Zhang, wish for a speedy happening.
"They've stopped the trucks coming into the city this whole month," she said, standing indignantly behind a stall stacked with rotting mangoes. "I can't get good fruit. It's bad for business."
Residents grumble that prices have soared; taxi drivers complain of hefty fines for dirty cabs or even muddy tires. Construction here also has been halted to decrease Beijing's pernicious dust. But hasty repairs to make the city sparkle, such as whitewashing of parking dividers, continue to the last minute.
Meantime, this city's beggars and prostitutes have been swept off the streets, and potential trouble-makers have been put on trains headed out of town. In Beijing's Jingtai district, residents sat in darkness for two nights because their electricity was diverted to the conference site.
There were similar cleanup campaigns when China hosted the Asian Games and prepared for visits of the 2000 Olympic Committee, recalls a street sweeper working near Beijing's main avenue.
"It's all the same," she says, not looking up from her work. "Even donkey dung is shiny on the outside."