EVEN after Wei Jingsheng was detained in March, Tong Yi, the secretary of China's most-famous dissident, continued to speak out until her own arrest a few weeks later in April.
Mr. Wei, who served an almost 15-year prison sentence for his leading role in the ``democracy wall'' demonstrations of the late 1970s, has not been seen since March although his international prominence gives him a measure of protection, Western diplomats here say. But Ms. Tong, reportedly charged with the crime of forging an official seal, is less well-known and thus more vulnerable. ``We're worried about her,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing. ``We don't know what's become of her.''
TONG is among a group of Chinese dissidents detained for alleged crimes rather than political offenses in a worrying new campaign by authorities to silence political dissent, two international human rights groups announced Oct. 3.
Human Rights Watch-Asia and Human Rights in China said a new list of previously unknown political prisoners suggests there are likely more than the 3,000 detained dissidents acknowledged by Chinese authorities and that activists are being jailed on criminal charges instead of political allegations as in the past.
The groups say this practice has intensified since President Clinton extended China's most-favored-nation trade status in June and discontinued linking its trade status to improvement in its human rights record. In recent months, Tong and at least five other dissidents were charged with criminal offenses such as stealing a bicycle and failing to register a marriage. They are among 17 activists arrested since the spring.
``The Chinese government is increasingly using false or frivolous criminal charges to arrest or convict political activists in a clear attempt to discredit them,'' the report said.
The two rights groups said the total number of people arrested in 80 Chinese cities during the pro-democracy movement of 1989 is higher than previously reported, based on a new list of more than 100 mostly unknown detained activists. Until recently, nearly 1,500 people were believed imprisoned for joining the 1989 protests or other dissident activities.
But the newly disclosed 104 inmates were imprisoned for crimes such as arson, disrupting traffic, and hooliganism - rather than political offenses - in an apparent effort to mask their detention from international human rights monitors, the groups said. The organizations had known of only 25 previously.
The groups also reported that the newly listed prisoners from 1989 got stiffer sentences than the better-known student leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests.