Police have arrested 30 or more dissidents in Beijing since late May, apparently as part of a crackdown on an underground organization dedicated to political reform, according to Chinese sources.
"I've heard that 34 people were caught," said a scholar who is not a member of the secretive group. Another Chinese source also said that 34 people have been arrested, while a third person said "several tens" of activists have been jailed.
All were speaking of an organization composed of young intellectuals who were active in the 1989 Tian An Men Square pro-democracy protests.
The arrests, which hit at least five universities or college-level institutes in Beijing, constitute one of the largest roundups of dissidents since the initial wave of arrests that followed the 1989 crackdown on China's pro-democracy movement.
One leader of the underground Beijing organization, Xiong Yan, spent 18 months in prison for his role helping to lead the Tian An Men Square protests. Xiong, 28, fled China on June 9 and is now living in the Los Angeles area after applying for political asylum in the United States.
Reached by telephone from Beijing, Xiong acknowledged being a leader of the organization and said he knew it had been hit by arrests. "The Communist Party is very intelligent and sneaky," Xiong said. "They won't admit that they have captured anyone, because there is no law to back them up."
Xiong said his opportunity to leave China arose in June while he was looking for work in southern China's Guangdong province.
Two Chinese sources in Beijing said they believe that Xiong fled because he realized the situation was becoming dangerous for him.
Xiong expressed concern about his wife, left behind in Beijing. "I hope that with the help of friends, she can come over here one day," he said. "In Los Angeles, my body is free, but my mind and my heart are not."
Xiong also sounded worried about friends. "I was very (politically) active in Beijing, but most of my relationships were personal, not related to this work," he said.
It is unclear how long authorities intend to detain those who have been arrested. At least one has already been released, but some could face prison terms.
Dissident sources in Beijing have revealed the names of some of those who have been arrested. It is not clear whether all of those named were associated with the group Xiong helped lead, but there seems little doubt that at least some of them were.
Among those arrested are former student activists Chen Wei and Wang Guoqi, each detained for the fourth time since 1989.
Also arrested were Liao Jiaan and Wang Shengli. Both are graduate students at People's University who were associated with the publishing this spring of "Trends of History," a book of reformist essays that was legally published but then criticized by authorities.
Times researcher Nick Driver contributed to this article.