WHAT'S eating China's Communist leadership? Why is it showing its strains so baldly and repeatedly? The other day, for instance, it gave four top organizers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement a one-day trial and long prison sentences on a grab bag of charges including organizing protests against official repression and "illegally obtaining state secrets." This act of intended political decapitation, directed at four Communist Party members, was an advertisement of the Beijing leadership's anxiety and the Falun Gong's momentum alike. With each new episode, China's evident effort to crush rather than conciliate the Falun Gong becomes more problematic.

In the same period, Chinese authorities have notched up their campaign against the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader. He has been promoting dialogue and accommodation. The authorities in Beijing have responded by dismissing and distorting his program, accusing him of covertly supporting violence to secure independence and of peddling an "insincere" acknowledgment of China's sovereignty over Tibet. Again, in difficult circumstances, Beijing has been closing down opportunities to ingratiate groups of restless citizens, rather than opening them up.

Then, a court in Henan province reportedly sentenced six leaders of the country's important underground Christian church to labor camps for being part of an "evil cult." This tip-of-the-iceberg development provided one more instance of the regime's turn to coercion in a context where a display of respect would surely make a positive difference.

One can only guess at how the protest initiatives being mounted from below by citizens of the totalitarian regime in China are affecting the deliberations of the Politburo at the top. These individual challengers deserve the sympathy and regard of people elsewhere, especially people who have the good fortune already to enjoy the basic human rights denied in China.