The Chinese government said today that it had brought criminal charges against four "principal" Falun Gong members, setting the stage for the first trial in Beijing in the three-month-old crackdown on the popular meditation and self-discipline movement.

The four--Li Chang, Wang Zhiwen, Ji Liewu and Yao Jie--were charged with "organizing a cult to undermine the implementation of laws," the official New China News Agency reported. Li, a former police official, Yao and Wang also were charged with violating China's state secrets law, a measure often used against political dissidents. Ji and Yao were charged with running illegal businesses, the report said.

Today's announcement marked another step in China's intensifying crackdown on Falun Gong. On Saturday, the Chinese legislature passed a law banning cults, opening the way for possible death sentences for Falun Gong leaders; last week, the Beijing government said it had determined that Falun Gong is a cult.

Beijing tonight also rejected Western criticism that it is suppressing religious freedom. Central Television quoted Li Zhaoxing, China's ambassador to the United States, as accusing American critics of a "double standard" in speaking out against China's crackdown while tolerating U.S. government moves against such groups as the Branch Davidians.

The indictments today came as Falun Gong practitioners who have flocked to Beijing over the last few weeks took a day off from protesting government moves to suppress the movement and the harsh new legislation. For the last six days, Falun Gong followers had demonstrated around Beijing's Tiananmen Square and at the government complaints office in western Beijing. A massive police presence around Tiananmen Square and near the adjacent Great Hall of the People appeared to scare off protesters, but Falun Gong sources in Beijing said they will continue demonstrating.

For most people in the capital, the campaign against Falun Gong seems bizarre in a country facing other, more pressing problems--such as a slipping economy, corruption, environmental degradation and faltering public services. Today, the government-run media argued in a Beijing TV broadcast that "if Falun Gong had been allowed to continue, all economic reforms would have been stopped."

A commentary in the People's Daily, the newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, hailed the new law as a "powerful legal 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."

Still, many Chinese expressed amazement that the government appears so intent on dismantling an organization that seems to have no real political platform. It was founded by by Li Hongzhi, who left China several years ago and now lives in Queens, N.Y.

"My sister does Falun Gong and she doesn't care about democracy or revolution or whatever," said Ouyang Hai, 54, a factory worker. "We don't understand it."

China appears to be cracking down on the group because it fears any organization outside its control. Falun Gong's challenge to the Communist Party has been "unprecedented in the 50-year history of the People's Republic in terms of the size of its organization, its influence, number of illegal publications as well as the damages it brought to the society," the New China News Agency said Saturday.

While student-led democracy demonstrations here in 1989 marked the most serious ideological challenge to the party since 1949, they were generally unorganized and were quelled by the army in a swift, blunt assault. Falun Gong, on the other hand, boasts about 10 million practitioners across China, organized in thousands of chapters that communicate with cellular telephones and the Internet.

Discipline in the movement is strong, as evidenced by the several thousand practitioners who are believed to have come to Beijing to protest the government ban. On April 25, more than 10,000 suddenly showed up outside the Chinese leadership's Zhongnanhai compound near Tiananmen Square to demand official recognition of their movement. Analysts said that the failure of China's security apparatus to anticipate the demonstration represented one of the most serious intelligence lapses in the history of Chinese Communist rule.

Falun Gong followers insist, however, that they have no hidden political agenda. "I do this exercise and read Li Hongzhi's book because I want to be a better person, not because I want to overthrow the party," said Wang Xuebing, 47, of Changchun. "Look at me," said the woman, dressed in a cheap red woolen coat and frayed boots, "do I look like a revolutionary?"

CAPTION: A police officer, right, questions a suspected member of the Falun Gong movement in Beijing. A large police presence in the Chinese capital muted protests yesterday.