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WILL BEIJING BASK OR BURN IN SPOTLIGHT?

In the dark days of political isolation after its bloody crushing of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, Beijing courted just about any international gathering up for grabs.

What better way to get back into global good graces than to play gracious host to the U.N.-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 or even the 2000 Olympics?Today, with the women's meeting closing in and subjecting domestic policies to international scrutiny, it's time to wonder if China's communist leadership rues the day Beijing won the honor of playing host to up to 50,000 women.

What remains to be seen is if Beijing will bask - or burn - in the limelight when it lays itself bare to the world.

"Back when they applied to host the women's conference they saw this as a prestigious thing," said a longtime U.S. women's activist who now runs a business in Beijing.

"But over the past year or so they've found out it is a lot of aggravation," she said.

The Sept. 4-15 women's conference and a parallel forum of thousands of global grassroots women's groups from Aug. 30 to Sept. 8, easily China's biggest international event, will flood Beijing with delegates, diplomats and journalists.

Foreign Minister Qian Qichen hinted at the prestige the conference would bring when seeking it in 1991.

"It is appropriate that this conference be held in China, for in no other continent is there a larger female population than in Asia and in no other country than in China," he said.

Qian said the gathering would showcase China's efforts on behalf of women and world peace - although he must have known it would also make China a lightning rod for censure.

The global group Greenpeace has given Beijing a foretaste of what it might be in for.

Activists unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square on Aug. 15 demanding China halt its underground nuclear testing. Police ended the protest in seconds, but footage of the incident ran on worldwide television within hours.

China's detention of the Greenpeace activists and its detonation of a nuclear device two days later triggered a rash of protests outside China's embassies worldwide, including a flag-burning in Australia.

Greenpeace leader Thilo Bode said a 20-second protest was long enough to deliver a message to China and the world.

"The pictures are important and the attention of the media and the public is important. I hope the debate about the test ban and testing by China can start now."

Human rights abuses, forced abortions and other coercive population controls, China's tough rule in Tibet and recent military intimidation of Taiwan, arms exports and military build-up or its nuclear weapons program - all could precipitate protests by activists.

Any dissent by foreigners will pose tough problems for the authorities.

Turning a blind eye to protests that would earn a Chinese citizen a prison term could cause the government to lose face before its own people, or, worse yet, kindle public outrage over the double standard.

Yet seizing and deporting foreign demonstrators surely would spark howls of protest abroad - ruining what should be China's shining hour.

Chinese insiders say police are ready to make arrests and even have holding tanks ready for those awaiting deportation.

"There can be no tolerance," said a source in Beijing's sprawling public security apparatus. "The government wants to give the world an impression of tolerance and democracy, but it cannot brook any challenge to its authority."