Who would have thought there are subversive ironists at work in the United Nations? But how else to explain the choice of Beijing as the venue for the Fourth World Conference on Women? The conference's slogan, floating on a dirigible over the airport, underscores the irony: EQUALITY, DEVELOPMENT, PEACE.  So does the conference's choice of secretary general, an ex-minister of a tyrannical Tanzanian regime. Is a congress of freethinkers in Tehran next?

There are thousands of Chinese security police on the Great Wall, each with an extra raincoat. Lesbians, rumor has it, are going to strip on the wall, and the police are prepared to cover their nakedness. The attack never materializes?perhaps because the weather is too bad.

I catch a glimpse of Winnie Mandela, a beautiful woman who lives in a limousine. She has had trouble with the Chinese, who (in just one example of their obstructiveness) would not let her into the opening ceremony because she arrived ten minutes late. Stepping out of her limo, she catches a glimpse of a British journalist who, in a newspaper with a circulation of about 2 million, has called her a promiscuous, thieving murderess several times. Winnie embraces the journalist warmly.

"I don't understand the Chinese," she says. "They're not like us, are they?"

A Reuters correspondent is in bed with his wife at 3 o'clock in the morning when he wakes to discover a man going through their luggage in their five-star hotel bedroom.

"What are you doing?" demands the journalist.

The man runs off; the correspondent gives chase, stark naked, down the corridor and catches his man.

"In China it is different," the man explains. "We clean rooms very late."

A Swedish woman, intelligent, cheerful, and maternal, complains to me on the flight back to Europe that she has been followed everywhere.

"They did not bother to disguise it," she says. (This is unsurprising. Normally, relations between the security police and foreign journalists are amicable; sometimes the telephone tappers ring back to ask the journalists the meanings of unfamiliar words.)

Once, the Swedish woman took a taxi and was followed as usual. But this time, when her taxi drew up to some traffic lights, the men in the following car jumped out, told the driver of her car to remove himself, and proceeded to drive her to her destination. Naturally, she was terrified.

"Why did they choose me?" she asks. "I am not dangerous; I am not political; I am not violent." She has discussed the question over and over with her colleagues, but they have been unable to formulated a satisfactory answer.

I offer my explanation, based on my experience in Albania, North Korea, and Ceausescu's Romania. "They follow you because you are innocent, because you have done nothing to deserve it," I say. "If they had followed you because you had done something?talked to dissidents, say?that would only show that they were vigilant. They would be warning you to keep your nose clean. This way they are telling you that there is no way you can keep your nose clean, that your nose is intrinsically dirty because it exists. They are telling you that they are all-powerful, that they can come for you anytime they like, from any direction, that there is nothing you can do to stop them, and that they do not have to give you a reason. And they know you will tell everyone else, so they will learn the lesson and be terrified too."

Back in the conference hall, the 5,000 delegates from 150 countries discuss the wording of the U.N. document to be produced at the end of the conference. Do men and women have intrinsic dignity by virtue of being alive? The Vatican says yes, the feminists say no. Everyone agrees, however, on the following statement: Girls are the women of the future.


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