BEIJING, JULY 5 -- Police have put hundreds of convicted criminals to death in recent weeks as part of the largest surge of executions seen in China since 1983, according to reports published in the official press.

Chinese officials say that the executions are aimed at countering a rise in serious crimes, such as murder, rape, bribery and drug trafficking. But Western diplomats say that the widespread executions may be intended to intimidate anyone who dares question state authority -- such as those who challenged the Communist Party leadership last year with a campaign for democracy based in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

A Chinese official said authorities are concerned about the growing availability of weapons and explosives and that Beijing is particularly anxious to make certain nothing disrupts the Asian Games, the Far East's quadrennial athletic competition, which is scheduled to open here in late September.

In Seoul, six days before the start of the 1986 Asia Games, five people were killed when a bomb set by leftist militants exploded.

In one recent report, the state-run press announced the execution of 20 criminals, one of them linked to the democracy campaign last year. The executions were required, the report said, to assure "the safety of the Asian Games."

No figures were released by the authorities on the total number of death penalties enforced in recent weeks. However, for "educational" purposes, numbers are disclosed with some regularity in official newspapers around the country, although not in the national press. The newspaper figures alone reveal the largest number of capital punishments meted out here in seven years, according to Western diplomats and Chinese citizens.

A diplomat said that since the anti-crime drive began in earnest in April, more than 100 executions have been reported in Shanghai alone. In the southern city of Guangzhou, 41 convicted criminals were executed in a single day.

In Beijing, few of the executions have been reported in the official press. But posters announcing more than a half-dozen executions in the last month have been spotted in many parts of the city.

Execution posters describing crimes committed have been seen on the campus of Beijing University. Since the appearance of such posters on a university campuses, students believe that these signs may be a warning to potential "troublemakers" -- meant to illustrate that the authorities are prepared to crack down. Students from Beijing University played a leading role in last year's democracy protests.

China imposes the death penalty in a much wider range of criminal cases than Western law permits. Nonviolent crimes such as major theft and extortion charges are often punishable by death.

Death sentences are sometimes handed down at mass rallies held in open fields or sports stadiums to "educate" the public. A recent radio report said that in the northeastern town of Jinzhou, a rally on June 22 attended by nearly 20,000 people was held to sentence criminals guilty of serious offenses.

According to the radio report, 12 criminals at the stadium were given the death sentence. It is usual for those sentenced to be taken immediately from such rallies to an execution site. The last wave of executions in China took place as part of a "crime-suppression" campaign launched in the fall of 1983.

In September 1984, Amnesty International, the London-based human-rights organization, which opposes capital punishment, reported that several thousand executions were believed to have been carried out during the first three months of the campaign against crime.

Western legal analysts contend that sentences are not meted out uniformly or consistently and argue that punishment in China sometimes follows political trends rather than legal standards.

Minister of Public Security Wang Fang said last month that the current effort will focus criminals who threaten social stability. He targeted those who engage in murder, robbery, use of explosives or sabotage of public utilities.

"To ensure social stability, those engaging in serious crimes will be punished according to the law, severely and quickly," Wang said.

Official claims of a rise in certain types of crimes are impossible to confirm, but it appears that crimes committed by juveniles have increased over the last decade -- an embarrassment to a Communist government that prides itself on its ability to maintain law and order.

In Guangzhou, officials say cultural influences from Hong Kong and Western countries are partly to blame for the rise in juvenile crime.

But other causes of delinquency have been attributed to a breakdown in social values, a loss of respect for authority, rising material expectations unleashed by a decade of economic change and unemployment brought on by an austerity program.

China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, argued in a January 1986 speech in favor of the death penalty. "Generally speaking, the problem now is that we are too soft on criminals," said Deng. "As a matter of fact, execution is one of the indispensable means of education."