CHINA'S COMMUNIST leaders often insist that theirs is, in fact, a system of laws -- that human rights activists who complain about a lack of democracy are just hung up on minor details, like elections. In the past week, events have proven the leaders absolutely right. When they found themselves without the laws they needed to vigorously persecute a peaceful meditation society, the Party simply ordered up some new laws. Now these will be applied -- retroactively, of course -- in show trials that could lead to execution for the group's leaders. This is what the regime calls "smashing them rigorously in accordance with the law." By these standards, Stalin was a scrupulous observer of civil rights.

You wouldn't know it from listening to deferential Clinton administration officials, but China is carrying out one of its more ferocious assaults against freedom of speech and freedom of association in recent years. Just since Sept. 30, the regime has arrested an estimated 3,000 practitioners of Falun Gong, a popular spiritual movement drawing on Buddhism and Taoism that appears to threaten the regime precisely because it is not under Party control. A Hong Kong-based human rights group reported that police beat to death one Falun Gong adherent, Zhao Jinghua, when she refused to renounce her beliefs. The Chinese police reported the death of another in custody, claiming that Chen Ying, 18, had jumped from a moving train. Given the absence of a free press, it's impossible to know how many have been arrested and how many have died in custody.

While the regime targets Falun Gong, it hasn't slowed in its pursuit of more traditional enemies. Last week it put on trial four organizers of the China Democracy Party, whose crime is to call -- again, peacefully -- for a more open political system. When one of the four, Zhu Yufu, tried to present a defense, court officials ripped his statement out of his hand and accused him of mouthing "anti-government propaganda," according to a report in The Post. Rule of law can take you only so far.

The administration appears too concerned with getting back in China's good graces to protest any of this except in perfunctory ways. U.S. officials regret having failed to nail down an agreement last spring paving the way for China's entry into the World Trade Organization; they're trying to make up for it now. And they are right when they argue that engagement with China is essential. The question is: engagement with whom? The current regime reveals with its latest crackdown that it cannot cope with change and cannot tolerate any independent voices. Future U.S.-Chinese relations would be better served if the United States spoke out more loudly on behalf of such independent voices within China, rather than betting on a regime that increasingly seems able only to burn books and chase dissidents.