BEIJING Days of interrogation in a cold, secluded room taught Liu Anjun that China's security forces see dissidents and protesters like him as players in a plot to topple the Communist Party, a fear that is magnifying Beijing's hard crackdown on dissent.
The most internationally prominent target of that crackdown has been the artist Ai Weiwei, but the net reaches far wider and reflects Party anxiety that it confronts not just general discontent, but a subversive movement waiting to pounce.
Liu, a gravel-voiced, charismatic agitator for petitioners' rights, was taken from his family on February 18. Police bundled him into a van and locked him in a hotel room in south Beijing, where he was watched by rotating teams of guards, he said.
There, for six days, police interrogators showed Liu pictures of dissidents, human rights lawyers, and activists, seeking information about their mutual contacts, beliefs and plans, Liu told Reuters at his home in a Beijing alley where he was recovering after his release from 45 days in detention.
The police have been hunting for evidence of a web of conspiracy bringing together domestic and foreign foes that the Chinese government believes are behind recent calls for Middle East-inspired "Jasmine Revolution" protests against the Party.
"They took out picture after picture, mainly of democracy activists and rights defenders, and asked about each of them," Liu said, seated in his cigarette smoke-filled living room.
"They were trying to build up links among everybody, trying to get me to tell them who was supporting what," said Liu, who walks on crutches after a leg injury sustained in a protest over the demolition of a former home.
Chinese leaders believe domestic foes, their foreign backers and Western governments are scheming to undermine and ultimately topple the Communist Party. Recent speeches and articles from security officials echo with warnings of subversive plots backed by Western "anti-China" forces.
Shortly before China's clampdown ramped up in February, a senior domestic security official, Chen Jiping, warned that "hostile Western forces" -- alarmed by the country's rise -- were marshalling human rights issues to attack Party control.
Many of those that police interrogators quizzed Liu about were already detained in the crackdown that gained momentum in February. They included the detained artist Ai Teng Biao, a well-known rights lawyer, and Wen Tao, a reporter who is a friend and helper to Ai, said Liu.
"They also asked a little about Ai Weiwei and showed me a picture of him from a party," he said. "I told them I didn't know anything about any of them."
Officials have said Ai faces investigation for "suspected economic crimes." But his sister, Gao Ge, dismissed that as a ruse and said Ai was detained for his political advocacy.
"The police officer who led the searches of his workshop was from state security. That says a lot," said Gao. "If this is just an ordinary investigation, why haven't we heard from Ai Weiwei?"
China's government does indeed confront discontented citizens and groups who want to end one-party rule, and the United States and its allies make no secret that they want China to evolve into a liberal democracy.
But what outsiders may see as a loose, disparate group of dissidents, bloggers, lawyers, and grassroots agitators, China's security police treat as a subversive, Western-backed coalition with the potential to erupt into outright opposition.
"(In China) there's a tendency to look for the 'black hand' and to look for an organization," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S. group that works for better treatment and the release of Chinese political prisoners.
"Their mentality is still based on the conspiracy of the revolutionary cell," Rosenzweig said in a telephone interview. "The idea of a counter-revolutionary clique has never really gone away in China."
The Party's alarm about domestic threats inspired by the anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Middle East and north Africa grew after an overseas Chinese website, Boxun.com, publicized calls for peaceful protests across China emulating the "Jasmine Revolution."
That fear has deep historical roots.
In official eyes, the pro-democracy protests against the Party in 1989 were the doing of counter-revolutionary agitators backed by the United States and other Western powers.
More recently, said two sources in Beijing, officials circulated documents claiming to show a Western conspiracy was behind the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a veteran of the 1989 protests. Those sources spoke on condition on anonymity.
"It's not just a general sense that the Western governments supported the Nobel decision; it's a real belief that it was dreamed up in Washington as a way to attack China," said one of those sources, a researcher.
Official Chinese fears of Western-backed subversion have been reinforced by the view that "color revolutions" that swept Central Asia several years ago were Western-promoted rehearsals for a similar subversive assault on China.
Chen, the security official, was a senior producer of a documentary shown to officials several years ago to stress the threat of Western-backed "color revolution" subversion.
The call for a "Jasmine Revolution" in particular brings together two of the Communist Party's great fears: Western-backed opposition and the power of the Internet to influence and possibly mobilize China's 453 million users.
"What's been going on in north Africa and the Middle East is a prime example in some people's eyes of the color revolution," said Rosenzweig, the Hong Kong-based rights researcher.
"What we're seeing is in my recollection ... the largest number of people who have been rounded up at once for online expression," he said.
Even if Ai is not charged on broad subversion charges often used to punish criticism of the Party, police will be able to use their access to his computers and records to assemble more information about other potential targets.
"I think now they're going to investigate all the people connected to Ai Weiwei," said Liu, the recently released activist. "Ai Weiwei could be a political sacrifice so they can investigate a lot more people he knows."
(Editing by Don Durfee and John Chalmers)