House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) ended his high-profile visit to China today in the way he began it: by dwelling on some of the most sensitive issues dividing China and the United States.

After meeting Wang Daohan, former Shanghai mayor and now one of China's top officials on China-Taiwan relations, Gingrich delivered an unequivocal warning that the United States would defend Taiwan if China ever attacked the self-governing island. China regards Taiwan, where Nationalist forces fled after losing the mainland civil war to the Communists in 1949, as a renegade province. It has refused to renounce the use of force to achieve reunification.

"I said frankly . . . we understand that in principle you will not renounce the right to use force," Gingrich said. "We want you to understand that we will defend Taiwan. Period." He said that Chinese leaders, in four or five meetings, had calmly listened to his warning and had simply played down the prospect of using force and therefore the chance that the United States would ever need to respond.

The United States has long supported a peaceful resolution to the differences between China and Taiwan and in the 1950s supported Taiwan militarily against the Communist regime in Beijing. More recently, some American policymakers, concerned that Taiwan could use U.S. support as a blank check for antagonizing China through independence moves, have favored a more ambiguous posture. Moreover, some Chinese officials have doubted U.S. determination to come to Taiwan's aid in another confrontation.

Gingrich said, "The worst thing would be an absence of clarity, the Dean Acheson problem of 1950," referring to arguments that President Harry S. Truman's secretary of state had contributed to the Korean War by not stating clearly enough that the United States would respond with force to North Korean aggression.

"It has not been waving a saber," Gingrich said. "It's just reminding them it's in the scabbard and available."

Just a year ago, China menaced Taiwan by testing unarmed missiles off the island's shores. President Clinton responded by sending two aircraft carriers and more than a dozen other ships to the region. Gingrich said that Chinese leaders "are more aware now that we would defend Taiwan if it were under attack."

Throughout his three-day visit, Gingrich spoke much more bluntly than have administration officials about China's human rights abuses but remained generally supportive of the policy of engagement with China that the Clinton administration has pursued. Both governments have supported visits by members of Congress to China, recognizing their key role on issues geared to China, such as Taiwan and trade.

Gingrich also warned China again to respect liberties in Hong Kong, which on Saturday he likened to a "very delicate orchid" in the hands of a giant. "If the giant has learned to hold the orchid, then in fact you will be seen very differently everywhere in the world," Gingrich said.

The Taiwan rhetoric is sure to please conservative House Republicans, who pressed Gingrich to add Taiwan to his Asian tour. To China's annoyance, that is where Gingrich heads after spending the next two days in Japan. But despite warnings about force, Gingrich backed the Chinese government's position that Taiwan and China are parts of one country. Asked what his reaction would be if Taiwan declared independence, as many people suspect it might one day, Gingrich sidestepped the issue by saying, "I don't think Taiwan will and I don't see any reason to discuss that."

Gingrich and a congressional delegation flew here this morning from Beijing and attended an Easter service in the Community Church, which was built in 1925 by foreigners living in Shanghai. After the Communist takeover, the church, like others, was forced to join the "patriotic church" movement by severing overseas links, relying on Chinese government financing, and acknowledging the supreme authority of the Communist Party. Some clergy who have refused to bow to the Communist Party have gone to jail and others, part of the so-called "house church" movement, lead small services in private homes. An unofficial, largely underground Catholic Church also functions, although many of its priests and bishops have come under pressure.

Earlier this month, Chinese police ransacked the home of Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang, Shanghai's senior underground Roman Catholic Church bishop, seizing money, Bibles and religious artifacts, according to the Stamford, Connecticut-based Cardinal Kung Foundation.

Shanghai's Community Church, the nondenominational church that the congressional delegation visited today, now holds two or three services every Sunday, with about 3,000 people filling pews. Today, worshipers spilled over into chairs set up in the garden outside as Yang recounted the story of Christ's resurrection.

After the service, Gingrich had lunch with Shanghai Mayor Xu Kuangdi, toured the new Pudong industrial zone, and stopped by Shanghai's lavish new museum. The city is in a construction frenzy, part of a drive to revive its position as a financial and cultural capital of Asia.

Gingrich played down China's recent economic achievements. "The economic dynamism, I don't think you should exaggerate. You are not going to have 50 years of 10 percent a year growth," he told students at Beijing's Foreign Affairs College Saturday. Today, recalling premature predictions of Japan's world economic hegemony, Gingrich said in an interview, "The next superpower is not China either. It is . . . a great regional power worthy of our engagement."

The view is important because of a debate in U.S. policy circles about whether the United States should regard China as a political, military and economic threat.

Despite Gingrich's talk about the need for greater freedom in China, China received welcome news elsewhere on the human rights front. France announced on Friday it would not cosponsor a motion at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva, citing what it said was progress by China on fundamental freedoms. Japanese Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda told his Chinese counterpart in talks Saturday that Tokyo was considering dropping its cosponsorship of the motion.

Gingrich hailed China's tentative experiments with more democratic elections in rural villages as an important step toward democracy. Noting that 15 percent of the villages' incumbent representatives lose reelection bids, he said, "Frankly, if you look at the U.S. Congress patterns over a 20-year period . . . that's not a bad number. We can't come and say that proves you aren't a free country."