KEYNOTING a sometimes rancorous international women's summit in Beijing this week, Hillary Rodham Clinton faces a delicate political balancing act.
Playing a broadening role as an advocate for women's rights worldwide, Mrs. Clinton will be juggling her mission to patch up strained Sino-US ties without ignoring the ongoing confrontation between women activists and Chinese security officials over free speech and human rights.
Clinton addresses the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women today and the parallel Non-Governmental Organizations Forum tomorrow amid tensions over stringent Chinese security and alleged harassment of some participants.
Her appearance at the summit was held in doubt until the recent release of Chinese-American rights activist Harry Wu, who was detained in China on spying charges for a month and has criticized her for agreeing to attend.
While Clinton's high-profile visit is intended to help ease differences, she risks a conservative backlash at home by slighting human rights controversies at the women's meeting.
Since the NGO meetings began Aug. 30, they have been plagued by tight Chinese security and interference with some delegates, mainly Tibetan and human rights activists.
''Hillary should speak out about that because it is deleterious to the purposes of the conference,'' says Robin Munro of Human Rights Watch, Asia. ''You can't begin to talk about advancing human rights for women when even the basic rights aren't guaranteed.''
''This is a dilemma for Mrs. Clinton. Do you risk angering the Chinese when you are trying to rebuild relations or risk political anger among the activists and at home?'' asks a Western diplomat.
On Monday, as 3,000 delegates attended the opening of official conference proceedings in Beijing, activists at the forum site in Huairou, a distant Beijing suburb, continued to confront pervasive Chinese security. This came only a day after NGO forum organizers, deeply split over confronting Chinese authorities, decided to back off from an ultimatum demanding an end to harassment or face a boycott. The leaders say the interference violates China's agreement with the UN to hold the meeting.
Singing ''We Shall Overcome,'' hundreds of women demonstrators protesting violence against women broke through a police cordon surrounding the Huairou site and paraded down the town's main street before being stopped by other police.
On Sunday, police had scuffled with Islamic women demonstrators and are alleged to have roughed up a Canadian participant trying to distribute leaflets about Tibet.
Fearing Clinton's visit could stir more demonstrations, police have created virtual security islands around the Beijing and Huairou sites to prevent city residents from contacting foreign delegates.
Activists, angered by what they consider Chinese attempts to isolate them in Huairou from official proceedings in Beijing, have complained that Chinese police have attempted to break up meetings, interfered with journalists, obstructed access to the forum site, and seized materials and videotapes criticizing China.
Beijing has also been accused of delaying the publication of several UN-sanctioned newspapers.
The police surveillance and harassment has been particularly aimed at human rights groups and exiled Tibetan activists who have openly challenged China at press briefings and seminars during the forum. Most bitter have been the clashes between Tibetan exiles who managed to obtain credentials and visas to attend the forum and pro-Chinese Tibetans.
Chinese officials, who maintain the complaints are ''a very irresponsible action taken by a tiny minority of people,'' resisted the demands for an easing of security.
''There is no such thing as a change to procedures,'' says Xu Zhijian, secretary-general of the China Organizing Committee, who was booed by some women activists at a press conference. ''If that is the case, the conference and forum will not go on.''
Despite the interference, controversy, and intermittent downpours, most of the activists caucused and held workshops in anticipation of the official conference.
''This battle between the Chinese and the human rights groups is coloring everything. There is a lot more going on here,'' says an African participant.
''I have come a long way ... My organization has spent a lot of money to send me here, and I want to get something for women accomplished.''
Against the backdrop of tensions over the meeting conditions, battle lines were bring drawn on issues including references to contraception, access to reproductive-health for teens, abortion, sex education, promoting equality for girls, and allotting increasingly scarce resources for women's programs.
At opening ceremonies yesterday, Gertrude Mongella, secretary-general of the UN conference, threw herself into the fray and urged participants to make clear that women are no longer ''guests on this planet.''
''This planet belongs to them too,'' she said, warning against a conservative backlash. ''A revolution has begun. There is no going back.''