CHINA'S UNELECTED government is troubled by the emergence of a popular movement that is first a health and meditation group and then a mass organization with political overtones. The leadership, which knows its turf, may be right to see Falun Gong as a potential alternative of sorts to the single, ruling Communist Party. But its repressive response to what is in the first instance only a health fad cuts across its international human rights commitments and threatens to make Falun Gong the very thing it fears.

China hands see Falun Gong in historical terms as the latest Chinese popular grouping to commend traditional exercises for purposes of health, mental and physical, and community alike. Its prospects for an expanding public role are said to arise from some combination of arid value-free modernization under Communist auspices on the one hand and the failure or disruptive effect of reform on the other. The group seems to draw from a constituency socially different and perhaps larger than the better-known political dissidents. It has shown an impressive organizational capacity by its large simultaneous peaceful demonstrations for official recognition in many cities.

What is most eye-opening, however, is the leadership's evident nervousness. Starting from the view that simple people need to be saved from pursuit of a false health cure, the authorities have moved to detain and reeducate the movement's likely leaders. In a national political campaign, the powers of the state are being deployed against what has been pronounced not only illegal but also anti-government -- in China a portentous distinction.

Among Americans, it is the popular and the official view that the Chinese people should be enabled to decide on the forms of their spiritual as well as political expression. In international agreements, the Chinese government has promised to guarantee these rights to its people. Americans and many others will be watching closely to see how Beijing delivers on its word.