BEIJING -- Confounding predictions that she would shy away from criticizing China, Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered an attack against human rights violators yesterday, hitting out at forced abortions, limits on free speech and arbitrary arrest.
In remarks aimed specifically at China, which is host to the United Nations World Conference on Women, Mrs. Clinton said it was "indefensible that many women in nongovernmental organizations who wished to participate in this conference have not been able to attend -- or have been prohibited from fully taking part."
Her comments came on the second day of the U.N. conference and nearly a week after the start of a parallel conference of nongovernmental organizations (known as NGOs) that are in China to exchange ideas with the official gathering.
These NGOs have been isolated on a 100-acre site north of Beijing, where many of their workshops have been videotaped and monitored by Chinese secret police. Thousands of women could not attend the conference after being denied visas or issued visas too late to make travel plans.
China had no official reaction to Mrs. Clinton's speech, but NGO members seemed ecstatic.
"It's great that someone of importance finally said something," said Lo Li Ping, a delegate from Fairfax, Va. Ms. Lo's work with Tibetan women has been disrupted by the heavy-handed Chinese surveillance, which resulted in one workshop ending early and another one stifled.
Mrs. Clinton's comments were especially welcome because the committee that organized the NGO forum had backed down during a fight with China over the weekend. Organizers had initially said that they were giving China an ultimatum to stop harassing the delegates, but they later retracted the statement and have allowed subsequent harassment to go unchallenged publicly.
Yesterday, for example, Chinese government agents monitored a demonstration by Brazilian activists against the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. The Chinese authorities obstructed the march and videotaped it. Other agents milled around outside the U.N. conference site in Beijing, videotaping participants as they came and went.
Freedom of expression is supposed to be guaranteed at the NGO and U.N. sites because they are both sponsored by the United Nations, meaning international standards of human rights are supposed to apply.
Mrs. Clinton held up these standards to the Chinese yesterday.
"Let me be clear. Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their governments," she said.
"It 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."
She also spoke out against forced abortions and female infanticide, which results from China's harsh family planning laws.
In remarks later to journalists, Mrs. Clinton said that she felt it was important to be "honest" in dealing with China and that her remarks were consistent with the Clinton administration's policy toward China.
"Everyone knows that our government has spoken out on behalf of human rights with respect to China and other countries, that there have been disagreements leading up to this conference," she said.
The critical character of Mrs. Clinton's remarks came as a surprise because only the day before, members of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. conference said they didn't expect her to aim remarks at China. Mrs. Clinton's visit was seen as an ideal opportunity for China and the United States to continue mending their badly tattered relationship.
"I think they're scratching their heads at the State Department," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Republican from Bethesda who is attending the women's conference. "But when they think about it, they'll realize it was the right thing to do."
Asked about the speech yesterday, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, said it "clearly supports and clearly is consistent with every aspect of administration policy on the women's conference as well as on other issues."
More predictable than her direct criticisms on the NGOs' harassment was Mrs. Clinton's criticism of human rights violations, such as forced abortions and arbitrary arrests, that are common in China.
Mrs. Clinton's comments may have been partially designed to deflate domestic critics who had said that her coming to China would be just a feather in China's cap. They argued that her visit would add prestige to China's authoritarian government and to a conference badly marred by China's organizational blunders.
In another gesture to domestic critics, who had said the conference had a radical feminist agenda, much of Mrs. Clinton's speech was focused on the importance of strong families.
Strong families and improved living conditions for women, however, could only be achieved if countries respected the rights of women, she said.
"It is time to break our silence," she said, ". . . it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights."
Instead of keeping silent, Mrs. Clinton said, people must speak out against female infanticide, prostitution, bride burnings, genital mutilation and compulsory family planning. She urged the conference, which is arguing over the wording of a 120-page "Platform for Action," to guarantee women's rights.
The platform was attacked for other reasons by more conservative voices, such as Mary Ann Glendon, who heads the Vatican's delegation. Speaking last night, she said promoting women's rights should not come at the expense of "undermining their roles within the family."
Common ground between Washington and the Vatican, however, came in opposition to coercive family planning, which critics contend is the practice in China.
"The Holy See joins with all participants in the conference in the condemnation of coercion in population policies," she said.