TO LITTLE NOTICE, China has been intensifying its repression of free speech and religion. More than 200 dissidents have been rounded up since May, and several have been sentenced to 10 or more years in prison. Their activities had been peaceful: membership in the China Democratic Party or assistance to laid-off factory workers. This week China's police arrested more than 70 members of a spiritual sect that recently staged a demonstration -- also peaceful.

This is the work of a jittery dictatorship that must doubt its own popularity. And with good reason. China's economy is slowing; by how much, no one knows, since the Communist Party's statistics are not reliable. Certainly, millions of workers are losing their jobs, yet they are denied the freedom to organize or to protest the corruption of the managers who lay them off. No one any longer believes in the ruling ideology, not even the rulers. Their only legitimacy therefore comes from delivering economic growth. When that sputters, the consequences are unpredictable.

It should surprise no one that Taiwan, a vibrant free-market democracy, isn't eager to subject itself to rule by these same insecure dictators. Yet when Taiwan's president suggested as much last week, it was he -- and not those hurling bellicose threats in return -- who came in for the most criticism. The Clinton administration, eager as always to placate Beijing, demanded explanations from Taipei, and China hands denounced Taiwan's recklessness. Yet the likeliest source of long-term instability is China's unwillingness to follow Taiwan on the path of democratization.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to meet her Chinese counterpart in Singapore this weekend. No doubt she will assure him of the administration's fidelity to a "one-China policy" -- to the fiction that Taiwan is not a separate country. She would do better to explain that no democracy would ever willingly join itself to a dictatorship -- and that the United States would never pressure one of its democratic friends to do so.

She should bring up the case of Liu Xianbin, arrested July 2 and charged last week with "subverting state power." Mr. Liu, who was in jail from 1991 to 1993 for publishing a journal called Democracy Forum, is almost certain now to receive a heavy prison sentence. Few Taiwanese are likely to favor any kind of union with China, Secretary Albright might explain, until people such as Mr. Liu are free to express their views.