Foreign correspondents covering China were officially warned for the first time today that reporting on the nation's tiny dissident movement is considered to be an unfriendly and possibly illegal action.

Vice Foreign Minister Zhong Xidong said at a press conference that reporters should be "prudent" in writing about underground magazines that "don't represent the view of the Chinese people or government."

"I hope you will have nothing to do with illegal things in China," he said. "Underground magazines are one of the illegal activities. I would advise reporters to be prudent, and it is better not to report on such publications."

Zhong also warned that "there are people who would like to use our friends correspondents for their own inglorious activities. I just advise our friends here not to be taken in by others."

Since April, the Chinese government has concentrated on mopping up the few human rights activists and free-speech advocates remaining from the short-lived democracy movement of 1979.

At least a dozen underground magazine editors and dissident leaders have been arrested in raids across China on orders of top officials who say the activists demoralize the nation's workers and distract them from economic development.

Today's warning appears to be designed to cut off dissidents from an important lifeline -- foreign correspondents who transmit the unorthodox views in reports that often get played back in China through the Voice of America.

Zhong, who heads the Foreign Ministry's information department, said the democracy activists "just represent a small bunch of people and they are not worth so much attention."

If reporters "only believe in what these underground publications say and don't believe in the official view of what the Chinese government says" and if they "lean to" dissident ideas, according to Zhong, "I don't know if you can call this a friendly attitude."

Zhong did not specify what would happen to reporters who ignore his warning. Two months ago, a Dutch correspondent who maintained contact with Chinese dissidents was asked to leave after the ministry accused him of unspecified "inappropriate behavior."

Zhong's remarks come as the Communist Party is gearing up for its latest attack on "bourgeois democracy." At a recent propaganda department meeting, party leaders admonished writers to toe the party line and renewed criticism of playwright Bai Hua for the "wrong tendency" reflected in his banned film on the problems of Chinese intellectuals.

At the press conference, Zhong said Peking was not planning a major crackdown on artists and writers but is trying to "redress the various erroneous tendencies existing on various fronts, particularly the ideological front."

He said criticism of wayward intellectuals "represents necessary steps to bring into play socialist democracy and the socialist legal system," a process that was interrupted during the Cultural Revolution.

"Now we just want to restore our fine old traditions," he told reporters.

On foreign policy issues, Zhong said Peking believes it is inappropriate to play an intermediary role in a recent squabble between the United States and North Korea.

U.S. officials asked China last week to convey Washington's "deep concern" to North Korea over the alleged North Korean missile attack on a U.S. reconnaissance plane off the Korean west coast.

Zhong said that North Korea is "an independent sovereign state" with which Washington officals "may well use other ways to get into contact."