A wave of executions has swept China in the last three weeks as part of a massive crackdown against crime, which many Chinese believe is running out of control.
The number of executions is not known, but probably runs into the hundreds. Posters have been seen in large numbers of cities and small towns in China, often announcing the execution of a dozen murderers, rapists, or robbers at a time.
Two spies have also been executed, the first for many years. But violent crime is what worries the average Chinese, and many people complain that the streets are unsafe at night and the problem is getting worse.
''It's dangerous to ride your bike at night. You risk being mugged by young hoodlums who will beat you up if you don't hand them your money,'' a Peking office worker said.
Older people tend to blame the Cultural Revolution for the crime wave, saying it bred bitterness and cynicism among young people who feel betrayed by unfulfilled promises. Many criminals are unemployed and claim muggings and robberies are the only way they can survive if their parents cannot or will not support them.
The crackdown started last month, when police spread a dragnet to ensnare 50, 000 criminals, many of whom are expected to be sent to the desolate central Asian province of Qinghai, which is dotted with labor camps. This was followed by the execution of 30 murderers and rapists in Peking.
On Sept. 2, it was announced that offenders could be given the death sentence in serious cases even if not stipulated in the criminal code. The decision affects ''leaders of gangs trafficking in human beings'' as well as activists in ''reactionary secret societies'' and organizers of prostitution rackets.
There is little popular feeling against the death penalty on moral or other grounds in China. Most Chinese feel that a criminal pays a debt to society when killed by the state.
The current drive against crime also follows a shakeup in the national security apparatus and the formation of a new state security ministry together with a paramilitary organization, the People's Armed Police Force, which guards sensitive installations and border regions. Largely responsible for the shakeup were two hijackings - one attempted and the other successful - of Chinese airliners by disaffected youths.
Security precautions at Chinese airports have since been stepped up considerably, but it will be much harder to curb widespread street crime.