As during Stalin's reign of terror in the old Soviet Union, the knock on the door by the secret police in China almost always comes at night.
Like their predecessors in the now-disbanded Soviet KGB, China's State Security agents routinely carry out arrests of "enemies of the state" under the cover of darkness, away from the inquisitive eyes of the public.
In their latest crackdown, agents mounted a joint operation with uniformed police in the coastal resort city of Hangzhou.
The target of the SWAT-like operation was not terrorists, revolutionaries, or arms dealers.
Rather, the top figure captured was Wang Youcai, a former student leader of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing.
The arrest of Mr. Wang and eight other dissidents in Hangzhou is not an isolated case. Since President Clinton ended his state visit to China July 3, other political activists have been detained or tried across the country.
Wang's offense, for which he could be charged with attempting to overthrow the state, is being treated as a grave one: He and several other peaceful advocates of political reform here applied for permission to create the China Democratic Party.
Wang's has been a household name since 1989 when it appeared on the government's most-wanted list of "student ringleaders" - a list that was telecast daily after the crackdown by the Chinese army on student protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. During a massive manhunt nine years ago, countless Chinese helped him try to evade capture, and he remains one of the most popular figures in China.
This time, the police were more careful to keep their pursuit of Wang a "state secret" before his re-arrest last week.
"More than 20 plainclothes and uniformed police entered our house and seized Wang Youcai before he could say anything," says Wang's wife, Hu Jiangxia.
Without producing an arrest or search warrant, the police also detained several of Wang's friends and ransacked his home.
Wang, who submitted the application for a new political party June 25, the day Mr. Clinton arrived in China, was briefly detained and released when the American leader was still on Chinese soil.
But the activist may be tried now that Clinton is back in Washington, says Frank Lu, a human rights monitor in Hong Kong.
"When Beijing sent tanks and troops into Tiananmen Square to crush student demonstrators [in 1989], the Communist Party not only lost its legitimacy, but also catapulted the protest leaders to fame," Mr. Lu says.
The 60-million-strong party "probably fears that Wang Youcai's popularity outweighs its own, and therefore ordered a crackdown," he says.0
Many of the news media that followed the first trip to China by an American president since the Tiananmen crackdown hailed the trip as launching a new period in Sino-US ties and in the Communist Party's tolerance of critics. Clinton criticized the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown at a news conference with President Jiang Zemin, carried live on Chinese television last month, and called for freedom of thought and access to information in another broadcast.
Ironically, dissident Wang said in an interview just before his arrest July 10 that "the live broadcast of the dialogue between Clinton and Jiang Zemin may signal a new era of openness and freedom to express diverse political opinions in China."
Yet since his detention, Wang seems to have been locked away in a Kafkaesque prison whose very existence is denied by the authorities.
Ms. Hu says that during a search for her husband, police officials have either denied any knowledge of Wang's whereabouts or issued vague threats that too many questions could turn her, too, into an imprisoned nonperson.
This newspaper's efforts to find Wang triggered a similar odyssey through the murky waters of officialdom. At one point, a Hangzhou Legal System Department spokeswoman, when asked about Wang and other dissidents, replied, "What is a dissident?" and provided another telephone number.
Like China's prisons for political detainees, its laws resemble a secretive labyrinth that provides few directions for unfortunates who enter its boundaries. Wang was detained for asking the government's permission to set up a new political party, and the courts will have to perform legal handstands to try to convict him of a crime.
"If I were the Chinese procurator, I'd be scratching my head [to decide] how to indict somebody for merely applying to register" a new political group, says Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese law at Columbia University in New York.
Wang would have broken the law if he failed to ask for state approval to set up a new party, Professor Nathan says. Yet China's legal system provides no "regulations under which you can register."
Under Beijing's tangled web of penalties for "antisocialist elements," the police could decide to forgo a trial altogether.
"Any of those detained could be arbitrarily sentenced for up to three years in a reeducation-through-labor camp, without charge or trial, by local security officers," says Mike Jendrzejczyk, who heads the Washington office of Human Rights Watch/Asia. "Administrative detention," he adds, "is increasingly used to repress political and labor activists" in China.
The nationwide crackdown that has so closely followed Clinton's departure from what appeared to be a liberalizing China "reflects the mask of openness that Beijing shows to the outside world and of harshness that it wears inside the country," says a young Chinese journalist.
In testimony before the US Senate last week in Washington, "we said we did not believe an era of glasnost had arrived in China," Mr. Jendrzejczyk says.
China's latest round of "arrests shows that a Leninist system dies slowly," says Orville Schell, a China scholar at the University of California at Berkeley.