BEIJING, Feb 24 (Reuters) Chinese police have rounded up at least eight democracy campaigners involved in hunger strikes that have spread to more than 16 provinces, a leading activist said today.
Most of those detained in the past 10 days had gone on hunger strikes to protest what they call increasingly violent harassment of dissidents by the government, Gao Zhisheng, a Beijing-based lawyer, told Reuters by telephone.
''It's because we have made the government look really bad by the hunger strikes,'' Gao said of the reason for the round-up. ''And its only way to resolve differences with its own people is violence.'' Gao said three of his assistants and four activists in Shanghai were taken away by uniformed policemen without providing warrants or reasons.
Two of the assistants were later freed but have been put under house arrest, and another is still missing, Gao said.
Yu Zhijian, who was jailed for throwing paint at Chairman Mao Zedong's portrait during the 1989 Tiananmen protests, was detained in his native southern Hunan province, Gao added.
AIDS activist Hu Jia and Qi Zhiyong, whose left leg was amputated after he was shot during the army crackdown centred on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, disappeared last week and their whereabouts remain unknown.
The so-called ''relay hunger strikes'', which started on February 4 after rights campaigner Yang Maodong was beaten up outside a police station in the southern city of Guangzhou, had spread to Beijing, Shanghai, eastern Zhejiang province and the southwestern areas of Guangxi and Yunnan, Gao said.
He added authorities would probably not file charges against the activists rounded up since February 15 and end up letting them go in a few days.
Wary of growing social unrest and keen to retain its monopoly on power, China's ruling Communist Party has been intensifying crackdowns on rights campaigners, lawyers, journalists and academics.
REUTERS CH KP1748