American politicians are always being lectured to think about how their actions and statements look to people in other countries. It's a fair thing to worry about, given our power and our claims to moral leadership.

But if any group needs a crash course on how to avoid alienating the rest of us, surely it's China's Communist leadership. They are, as the spinmeisters would say, the most consistently "off message" group of politicians in the entire world.

Here is China trying to get into the World Trade Organization. Its political and business allies (aided by highly paid Western "consultants") keep saying that expanded trade and more open markets will inevitably lead China to political freedom and respect for human rights.

But President Jiang Zemin can't even stick to the script for public consumption. The latest outrage committed by his government is the ruthless persecution of the spiritual group Falun Gong, which mixes exercises and meditation derived from Buddhism and Taoism with some elements of its own.

There is absolutely nothing subtle about this campaign of roundups and arrests. The People's Daily, the Communist Party's paper, hails a new law against "cults" as "a powerful weapon to smash evil cultist organizations, especially Falun Gong. Evil cults are a cancer in society and an international phenomenon that no responsible government can tolerate." In other words: Religious freedom is a right the Chinese government cannot tolerate.

Falun Gong's persecution has rightly engaged the concern of groups that battle on behalf of religious freedom for Christians. They understand that religious liberty is indivisible. Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, says the Chinese government's campaign against Falun Gong is of a piece with its war against all independent religious groups, including Christian churches.

"Falun Gong has felt the brunt of it recently because they have been so visible," Shea says. But the government's principle that "there should be no organizations outside their purview and control" applies to every religious and social group. Shea notes that the Chinese government has studied the role of the churches in bringing down Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe 10 years ago.

Still, Jiang's militancy against Falun Gong is mysterious, even to some within his own government. As John Pomfret reported in The Washington Post from Beijing, the campaign has exposed the Chinese ruling class's "weaknesses, insecurities and internal divisions to audiences at home and abroad." Jiang, Pomfret said, apparently thought Falun Gong would be an "easy target" and was alarmed when he "learned people close to him were followers of the group." Many Communists and former Communists, disillusioned because the party now seems to stand for nothing except the retention of power, have reportedly been drawn to Falun Gong.

Rabbi David Saperstein, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says he has received reports that membership in the spiritual group may now outstrip membership in the Communist Party. Its ranks include influential people in the party, the government and the military. China's economic downturn has heightened the government's fears. "There seems to be more restlessness than at any time since Tiananmen Square," Saperstein says.

If the cause of religious freedom isn't enough to excite you, what about freedom of the press? Last Wednesday, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China protested that its members had been "subjected to blatant harassment by police and security agents simply because they had covered the activities of Falun Gong practitioners." Reporters "have been followed, detained, interrogated and threatened." With all this talk of "free trade," what about the free exchange of ideas?

But it would appear we're not going to let a little religious persecution get in the way of commerce. President Clinton yesterday proudly announced that the United States and China had reached agreement on terms for China's entry into the World Trade Organization. The agreement, he said, would "advance the rule of law." Which rules and which law were left unclear. But perhaps Falun Gong can now turn its faith into a product and appeal to the WTO in the name of open markets for the right to preach--excuse me, "sell"--its ideas.

At the very least, China's business allies and lobbyists might risk some trade deals and consulting fees to send a modest message to the Chinese leadership: Americans, whether religious or secular, don't like religious persecution and government crackdowns on independent groups. China's lobbyists might usefully tell Jiang that thanks to his government, they're looking increasingly foolish. They keep arguing that trade will improve China's human rights situation, but he keeps making it worse.