First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, declaring that it is "time to break the silence" on the abuse of women, condemned human rights violations around the world and rebuked China for its "indefensible" treatment of women taking part here at a forum of nongovernmental organizations.

Speaking this afternoon before 1,500 delegates and observers at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, which opened Monday, the first lady made a stirring call for an international commitment to the cause of women's rights.

"If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights once and for all," she said to hearty applause.

Despite concerns among many groups here that Clinton would shy away from criticizing China at a delicate time for strained Sino-American relations, the first lady strongly denounced human rights violations here as well as around the world.

Although she did not mention China by name, Clinton clearly was taking aim at the Beijing regime when she said: "It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will."

Clinton's criticism of Chinese policies fell on receptive ears. About 20,000 women have been beset for days by Chinese police harassment, searches and restrictions on meetings and demonstrations at the Nongovernmental Organizations Forum on Women taking place about an hour's drive from Beijing in the town of Huairou. Such treatment follow weeks of uncertainty and confusion over the granting of visas to those wishing to attend the meeting; some groups critical of Chinese policy have been barred from coming.

"It is 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," Clinton said, again drawing strong applause.

"Let me be clear," she said: "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. 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."

The official New China News Agency carried brief excerpts from speeches by N.K.A. Rawlings, the first lady of Ghana; Ivan Kuras, vice prime minister of Ukraine; and a Jordanian princess. Clinton's name was last on a list of other speakers who were not quoted.

The news agency devoted more space to comments by Peng Peiyun, deputy head of China's delegation and head of China's family planning and one-child policy, lauding China's "achievements." The agency also described a demonstration it said took place in Huairou at which protesters purportedly carried a banner reading: "Stop U.S. imperialism. Women of the toiling class unite."

The first lady's comments could further complicate U.S.-China relations, which have been frayed since May when the Clinton administration yielded to congressional pressure and granted a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to attend a reunion at Cornell University. The two-month detention of Chinese American Harry Wu, a crusader against conditions in China's prisons and forced-labor camps, further strained bilateral relations.

State Department officials have just begun to calm Chinese anger over the Lee visit. Ten days ago, the two nations agreed to a meeting of foreign ministers in late September and to prepare for a possible meeting between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and President Clinton. The Chinese ambassador to Washington, recalled in June, is expected to return soon.

Because of the recent warming between the two countries, some administration advisers opposed Hillary Clinton's visit, saying that if she failed to deal with the human rights issue it would appear as though the United States had been intimidated by China, and that if she did deal with the issue, it could further poison the atmosphere between Washington and Beijing.

In an interview with reporters, Clinton played down the strains her speech could put on U.S.-China relations, saying, "We are working toward having a very comprehensive and hopefully good relationship with China in many areas. For me, it was important to express how I felt and to do so as clearly as I could."

White House officials said Clinton's remarks were designed to strike a balance between the obvious need to take account of China's behavior and a desire not to antagonize Beijing. "You couldn't not mention some of those things," one senior official said, because failure to bring them up would have exposed Clinton to charges of pandering to the Chinese at the expense of U.N. conference goals.

The first lady has no meetings scheduled with Chinese officials. However, Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord plans to meet Wednesday with Chinese officials to prepare for the planned talks between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.

Some senior administration officials tried to soften the blow of Clinton's remarks here by stressing that she also cited women's rights abuses common in other nations. "Clearly this was a global speech on women and women's rights," a senior administration official said tonight. "It didn't single China out."

Indeed, without mentioning the name of any country, Clinton condemned an Indian practice, still common in rural areas, of burning brides when their marriage dowries are deemed too small; the African custom of performing genital mutilation on women; domestic violence in the United States and elsewhere; and the Bosnian and other conflicts in which "women are raped in their own communities" or "subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war." Many abuses she cited are common to several nations.

Madeline K. Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the intention of the U.S. delegation here is "not to mince words, not to put a gloss on the issues, but to talk about what we need to talk about to improve the situation in this country and all countries throughout the world."

"This was the most eloquent and forceful I've ever heard her," Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said about Clinton's speech. "Everyone knows the countries she was talking about."

But not everyone was satisfied with the first lady's remarks. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House subcommittee on international operations and human rights, said that while he was happy that she denounced forced abortions, the speech fell short "for want of one word -- China." "If women have a conference in Beijing and it doesn't mention that China has engaged in this terrible practice, it would be an opportunity lost and negligence, really," Smith said.

Clinton also tested some language likely to become standard usage during the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign. She opened and closed her afternoon speech with the phrase "common ground," a term President Clinton often uses in trying to define his administration as lying between the extremes of American politics.

The phrase also resonated here as delegates from more than 180 nations try to reach a consensus on the wording of a 120-page document setting new standards for women's health, economic welfare, family planning and status in society.

"However different we may be," Clinton said, "there is far more that unites us than divides us. We share a common future. And we are here to find common ground so that we may help bring new dignity and respect to women and girls all over the world -- and in so doing bring new strength and stability to families as well."

She also stressed the importance of women to "families," a word that the Vatican delegation and other conservative participants here say appears too seldom in the Platform for Action, the U.N. draft document under consideration by the conference.

The head of the Vatican delegation, Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon, criticized the document on other grounds, saying it is "not bold enough in acknowledging the threat to women's health arising from widespread attitudes of sexual permissiveness. Glendon also reiterated the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion. "It will be a great reproach to our society if all we have to say to a woman or a girl who is pregnant and frightened is that she must destroy her own unborn child," she said. Regarding abortion, Clinton said obliquely that the conference document should guarantee the right of women "to determine freely the number and spacing of the children {they} bear" -- wording borrowed from the final statement of U.N. conference on population last year in Cairo. She added in a morning speech on health issues that she endorsed a Cairo conference clause that declares: "In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning."

"There is no formula for how women should lead their lives," said Clinton, who during the presidential campaign upset some conservatives who felt she had demeaned cookie-baking, child-rearing housewives. "That is why we must respect the choices that each woman makes for herself and her family."

On Wednesday, Clinton will make a speech in Huairou, the site of the nongovernmental forum. On Thursday, she will stop over in Mongolia before returning to the United States Friday. Staff writer Thomas W. Lippman in Washington contributed to this report. CAPTION: First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton discusses plight of women around the world in speech at Beijing conference.