OVER IN PEKING, they are sticking it to the group that lost out in the last political shuffle. Ten people in and around the "Gang of Four," including the widow of Mao Tse-tung, are being run before the cameras, excoriated and held up as paragons of evil. This is the way it often is in communist countries where there is no accepted process of changing leadership. Each new group of winners, feeling keenly the lack of the legitimacy that popular selection alone confers, is driven to persecute its predecessors.

What makes the prsent episode especially distasteful, however, is that it has been dressed up as a trial and accepted by various non-Chinese observers as just that, as a legitimate procedure for ascertaining what is taken to be the defendants' real guilt. Don't get us wrong. We aren't nostalgic for the "Gang of Four" or its "Cultural Revolution." But there is a difference between a trial, involving norms and safeguards, and a show trial. The latter ritual, congenial to totalitarians, is taking place in Peking. Mrs. Mao and her co-defendants, who, by the way, have been in jail four years, may be guilty of every foul deed they are accused of. But look at Peking's standards of proof. At one point, a prosecutor said a defendant's silence "shows that you continue to stubbornly insist on your reactionary stand." At another point, there was an official assertion that if defendants "indulge in sophistry," the court can silence them. Get the point?

The People's Republic now enjoys a generally good standing in this country. Certainly no one expects it to accept a transfusion of Western due process simply because the Chinese and American governments have made a certain common political cause. But there has long been a tendency in the West not merely to avert one's gaze from the brutal aspects of Chinese society but to give China the benefit of doubts that Chinese do not even claim for themselves. China receives a deference that other totalitarian countries, say, the Soviet Union, would give a decade's propaganda budget to win. It is in this rosy haze that the "trial" in Peking -- a term from which the quotation marks are often solicitously removed -- is being projected abroad. Americans do neither themselves nor the Chinese a favor by smiling on such fictions. What is going on in Peking is a show trial -- no quotation marks.