prominent Chinese dissident sentenced to hard labor at a prison camp has smuggled out an extraordinary manuscript that describes his odyssey through China's penal system as a nightmare of harsh interrogation, physical beatings and injustice.

The 196-page volume, entitled "Looking Back at a Dismal Past and Looking Forward: My Appeal to the Tribunal of the People," is the first personal account known to have leaked out of one of China's dreaded penal camps, where prisoners are sent to be "reformed through labor."

The memoir not only reveals the severe treatment meted out to young Chinese who call themselves democracy activists, but it also provides a rare glimpse into a shadowy system of justice and punishment where suspected criminals can be arrested and locked up without a trial.

The writer, Liu Qing, 38, who helped found an unofficial magazine during the unusual democracy movement here two years ago, was arrested in November 1979 after distributing transcripts from the trial of another dissident leader, Wei Jingsheng.

Liu wrote in "Looking Back" that he was arrested, brusquely interrogated, thrown into solitary confinement for five months, locked in a Peking jail and finally sent to a penal farm--all without ever being indicted, tried or given a chance to prepare a defense.

A copy of "Looking Back" was obtained by The Washington Post in recent days. Reliable sources have authenticated the manuscript by comparing its calligraphy to earlier writings by Liu. Liu's friends within the democracy movement also have confirmed it is Liu's work.

Liu, a former technician, was one of the first and most influential members of China's democracy movement, a tiny, loosely knit group of young workers and intellectuals who advocate greater freedom as a necessary condition before China can progress economically and socially.

Never much of a political force in this tightly controlled communist nation, the movement began to dissipate after Wei Jingsheng, the best known activist, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in October 1979 for "counterrevolutionary" behavior. Shortly afterward, the government banned wall posters from Democracy Wall, a brick wall in downtown Peking where most of the dissidents came to sell unofficial publications and meet with foreign correspondents.

Peking's old-line Marxist leaders who see the activists as reckless individualists whose views of "bourgeois liberalism" fracture the society and distract China from the task of rebuilding its creaky economy.

Although several prominent dissidents incuding Liu were arrested in 1979, Peking authorities only began a systematic crackdown on dissent earlier this year. Since April, at least 25 unofficial magazine editors have been arrested, disappearing within China's penal system without trial.

A new criminal code was adopted in 1979 designed to protect Chinese citizens from the arbitrary arrests and persecution that occurred during the Cultural Revolution. The code guarantees an open trial to anyone accused of a crime.

But a major loophole opened in this highly touted new judicial system when a 1957 "reeducation through labor" regulation was revived and published nationwide in February 1980. It allows police to assign to labor camps certain people--ranging from "antisocialist elements" to hooligans--without court review.

In his manuscript, Liu says he was threatened with indefinite detention when he refused to talk about other dissidents. When he resisted a guard's order to bow his head and hold his crotch, he was beaten, gagged and handcuffed so tightly that his wrists were cut by the metal cuffs, he recounted in the manuscript.

The 15-square-yard cell in the Peking detention house, where he lived alone for five months with no more than a blanket was so cold and damp that his left side continually ached, he wrote. His hair fell out in clumps, and his eyesight deteriorated so badly that he could not distinguish figures in a photograph.

Liu said he demanded his legal right to an indictment and trial, wrote three letters appealing his detention to Chinese court officers and argued with his jailers. But always, he got the stock reply: "Just admit your mistakes. Being obstinate will do you no good."

Not until nine months after his arrest was he given his sentence--three years in a central China penal camp for distributing information (the court transcript) that his jailers said was designed to incite the public against the court for convicting his dissident friend.

The penal camp in Shanxi Province known as Lotus Flower Temple enclosed within its high walls and electrified barbed wire fence prisoners ranging from serious criminal offenders to young workers who had a run-in with police, he said. Most were required to lug huge rocks as their job.

At Lotus Flower camp, he began writing his memoir, apparently using the paper and pencils given to inmates for their self-criticisms. He managed to spirit out the manuscript this summer with the help of a visitor who brought it to Peking where it was copied by other dissidents and selectively distributed.

"When you deal with the Public Security Bureau China's police agency , there is no way to argue with reason," he wrote. "Therefore I want to appeal to society for help. I want everybody to know the truth and have society intervene to stop these kinds of illegal actions. We have to let the police know they can't do any thing they want."

Liu's clash with the penal system began in 1979 when he decided to transcribe a tape recording of Wei Jingsheng's trial, mimeograph more than 1,000 copies and distribute them at Democracy Wall. On Nov. 9, 1979 he posted a notice on the wall announcing that transcripts would be sold two days later.

On Nov. 11, as hundreds of Chinese lined up for copies, police broke up the crowd, seizing the transcripts and arresting four people, according to Liu's manuscripts. Earlier that day, a friend told him, "The PSB is out, and you're the target."

Although Liu escaped the police roundup, he decided later to inquire about the arrests at the Peking Public Security Bureau. He questioned the reasons for the arrests and urged that his friends be released and the transcripts returned if there was no violation.

Instead, Liu said in his memoir, he was quickly put on the defensive. Taken into a tiny room, he was told to "get seated" on a small stool. Four interrogators took turns asking him where he got the tape recording of Wei's trial, which had been open only to special ticket holders.

When Liu refused to answer and asked to see an indictment before further interrogation, according to the memoir, his questioners pounded the table, shouted at him and demanded a reply. He was told the Public Security Bureau is "an organ of dictatorship" and he had to comply with their questions.

Finally Liu's interrogators left him alone, but another man stepped in the room and ominously shouted, "It is easy to come here, but not so easy to get away. Don't think you're so big. We have all kinds of ways to take care of you, little Liu Qing. You have to answer all our questions."

"I thought I had entered Anding mental Hospital," Liu wrote.

When he started to leave the interrogation room at midnight, he was stopped by guards. The next day, three officers entered his room, and he was told to rise. One of them read from a piece of paper with small type: Liu would be detained for 15 days for violating a public security regulation.

"Take him away," Liu recalled the chief officer saying.

For the next nine months, Liu was kept at the Peking detention house, locked up for the first 20 weeks in solitary confinement. His only company was a persistent, white-haired interrogator who pressed for information about the trial tape recording.

Ten days after being jailed, said the manuscript, Liu finally was told why he was being detained. By distributing the court transcripts at Democracy Wall, he had violated a 1949 law giving the official New China News Agency exclusive rights to report major news items.

"This just shows the truth of the old saying, 'There's always a way to incriminate someone,' " Liu remarked in his work.

When he continued to question the legal basis for his jailing and refused to cooperate with interrogators, Liu was warned, "We have many weapons in our arsenal. We can expose publicly what kind of man you are. You aren't faultless, are you? We could detain you indefinitely, as long as you wish."

Interrogators tried to break him down, he wrote, by repeating in minute detail private conversations he had with his colleagues before the arrest. Police also produced numerous photographs showing him with fellow activists.

Liu was asked how his magazine, April Fifth Forum, was organized. He was told to provide detailed information on other dissidents, including a written report on one well-known editor. He was questioned about the Joint Conference, a coordinating council of seven unofficial magazine editors set up in 1979 to help activists who ran afoul of the law. Liu was chairman of the group.

Interrogators tried to intimidate him, Liu said, by reciting details of meetings he had with foreign correspondents including one session with an American reporter who later wrote an article juxtaposing the dissidents' views with those of former party chairman Hua Guofeng.

Styles of the interrogators varied, he recalled. Sometimes they softened, urging him to "admit your mistakes" so that he could be freed. One day he was presented a self-criticism to sign. He was told that his lack of cooperation reflected his antiparty, antisocialist sentiments.

"You are not one person, Liu Qing," he was instructed at one point. "You have influence and have involvement with people of many strata. If it was only a question of yourself, we could let you go. But now your matter is too big. Therefore you must admit your mistakes."

In early April he was moved from solitary confinement to a large cell with a dozen other prisoners. It was in a nearby cellblock that he refused to obey a guard's order to cup his lower abdomen with both hands and bow his head.

The punishment was a beating until he was black and blue, Liu said in his manuscript. Guards then handcuffed his hands behind his back, covered his face with a cloth mask that impaired breathing and put him in a much smaller cell.

In the new cell, he met an inmate who claimed to have seen Wei Jingsheng. The inmate said that Wei had been shut up in solitary confinement on Death Row instead of being taken to a labor camp as ordered by the court.

Not long after that conversation, while returning to his cell from the exercise yard, Liu spotted Wei. He said Wei looked pale, thin and tired. He was flanked by two guards escorting him to an interrogation session.

Another dissident, Zhang Wenhe, was at the detention center, said Liu. He was so defiant, according to the memoir, that guards kept him in handcuffs most of the time--at meals, while he slept and en route to the latrine. He also was beaten severely and covered by the cloth mask, said the author.

On July 21, 1980, two guards entered Liu's cell and told him to get ready to leave. He would serve a three-year sentence of "reeducation by labor" at the Lotus Flower Temple in Shanxi Province, a penal farm customarily reserved for long-term convicts.

Lotus Flower Temple was home for different classes of prisoners, said Liu: common criminals, political prisoners and so-called forced labor inmates whose crimes were not considered as serious. Forced laborers and those undergoing reeducation are still considered citizens, whereas inmates being reformed by labor lose their rights as citizens.

Despite these distinctions, Liu noted in his manuscript, all inmates were treated the same. Lotus Flower Temple included among its populace those suspected of serious crimes but sent there before evidence was ever compiled.

At Lotus Flower Temple, Liu has concluded that "having a legal battle with the PSB is unwinnable." He describes himself as "a weak person now without any legal protection, no way to voice my appeal to society."

"The PSB has full power to do with me whatever it likes," he wrote. "They were ready for me. But I still want to fight until the day I can no longer fight."