On the second day of the labor protests that seized this rusting, industrial city last March, government officials offered to negotiate. For more than an hour, the workers debated how to respond. Then from the cheering, chanting crowd of nearly 30,000 assembled in the streets, a dozen men and women emerged, stepped past the riot police and disappeared into city hall.

These "worker representatives" had accomplished something remarkable, bringing together people from scattered factories for the largest labor demonstrations this city's Communist leadership had ever seen. Now, they were entering more dangerous territory, exposing themselves as protest organizers to officials who had been trying to identify and detain them for days.

In a second-floor conference room, the workers laid out their grievances -- unpaid wages, missing pension funds, corrupt officials who stripped factories of assets and shut them down. City leaders promised to address the workers' complaints if the protests ended. The police chief pledged no one would be arrested, according to two people who were there.

Optimistic, the workers agreed to call off the demonstrations and give the government six days to respond. But five days later, police started taking the workers to jail.

Yao Fuxin, one of the most outspoken workers, refused to cooperate with authorities and remains in prison. Chen Dianfan, another representative in the room, abandoned the workers when they turned to him for leadership and was given a new factory job. A third worker, who asked to be identified by only a portion of his name, Tie, escaped arrest and continues organizing protests, but he is more careful than ever and trusts almost no one.

What happened to Yao, Chen and Tie illustrates the difficult choices that confront those who try to organize workers in the face of the ruling Communist Party's determination to suppress labor activism. How much should any person sacrifice for a cause with such a slim chance of success? Is it right to betray your friends to feed your children? What battles are worth going to prison for?

Their stories also help explain why a sustained, national labor movement has not emerged in China despite mass layoffs and widespread worker frustration caused by the country's painful transition from socialism to capitalism.

Workers stage protests in China every day. Such acts, while risky, are the most effective way to draw attention to their problems in a political system in which the courts and trade unions are controlled by the party. But these scattered outbursts of discontent are almost always limited to workers from a single factory, and they rarely spread from one city to another.

One reason for that is a strict policy forbidding state media from reporting on labor unrest. But the party's systematic approach to defusing protests by isolating and dividing labor leaders is also critical. The authorities undermine support for the leaders by making concessions, often minimal cash payments, to many workers. Then, they directly target the leaders, setting them against each other by arresting some and buying off others.

The strategy tests the strongest of relationships, forcing labor organizers to chose between freedom and loyalty, tearing apart friends who have lived or worked together for decades. In Liaoyang, it left two worker leaders in prison, two on supervised bail and the others scattered and scared, wracked by guilt, anger and mutual suspicion.

"For a while, we were united, but there's no worker solidarity now," Tie said, shaking his head in one of a series of clandestine interviews this year. "We don't trust each other. And we probably shouldn't."

'We Just Wanted Food'

This drab city 350 miles northeast of Beijing looks and feels like it is dying. Dusty roads are lined with the crumbling brick remains of failed state enterprises, and residents say at least half of the city's factory workers have lost their jobs.

Many recall an emotional moment on the second day of the March demonstrations: A heavyset, 52-year-old laid-off steel worker, Yao Fuxin, was standing on a platform in front of city hall. His arm cradled an elderly woman, the widow of a fellow worker. Tears ran down both their faces as Yao raised his voice and openly challenged the authorities.

"We devoted our youth to the party, but no one supports us in old age!" he cried, according to several witnesses. "We gave our youth to the party for nothing!" When he finished speaking, the crowd broke into thunderous applause.

Many laid-off workers in China are disillusioned with the Communist Party, blaming it for breaking its promise to provide lifetime employment and benefits. But after years of petitions and lawsuits that went nowhere, Yao and other frustrated worker leaders in Liaoyang sometimes voiced a broader and -- to those in power -- more disturbing complaint, attacking the one-party system and demanding greater political rights.

With only a high school education, Yao began organizing protests in Liaoyang as early as 1992, after losing his job at a state-owned steel rolling mill. He was an avid listener of short-wave broadcasts such as the Voice of America, and he supported democratic reform for China, recalled his daughter, Yao Dan. His wife often urged him to be careful, but he had spent five years in the countryside during Mao Zedong's destructive Cultural Revolution, and he sometimes remarked he wasn't afraid because of what he had already survived.

When his wife was forced into early retirement at the Liaoyang Ferroalloy Factory, he adopted the cause of the workers there as his own. The state-owned factory stopped paying its 6,000 employees on time in the mid-1990s and was steadily withdrawing pension and insurance benefits. Workers believed managers and local officials were stealing from the plant and conspiring to shut it down for personal gain.

Yao helped the workers stage protests and write petitions to countless offices, and he gradually emerged as one of their leaders. Police arrested him at least twice, but he never spent more than a few weeks in jail.

After the city declared the factory bankrupt late last year, Yao and workers there began planning a new wave of protests, meeting in the convenience store he had opened, or in a large conference room in the factory. Sometimes, hundreds of workers attended. "Of course, police noticed, but they didn't do anything. They didn't think it was serious," recalled Tie, who was there for many of the sessions. "But we were drawing up a comprehensive plan. We had groups in charge of safety, of morale, of medical care. We wanted to make sure there was no illegal behavior."

The workers regarded two other men besides Yao as their top leaders: Yao's neighbor Xiao Yunliang and truck dispatcher Pang Qingxiang, both longtime Ferroalloy employees in their fifties. Out of caution and fear, the organizers drafted an emergency plan listing several other workers who would take over if police detained those three men.

Originally, the protests were to begin March 18. But then state television broadcast an interview with Gong Shangwu, a senior local official. In Beijing for the annual meeting of China's national congress, he told a reporter there was no unemployment in Liaoyang and angered tens of thousands of laid-off workers desperate for jobs.

The Ferroalloy workers moved up the protests by a week, quickly printed more than 400 notices and plastered them on walls in worker neighborhoods across town. When March 11 arrived, the turnout was greater than any of them expected.

By some estimates, nearly 30,000 workers from at least six factories filled the streets in front of city hall. Yao and the other workers took turns delivering speeches with bullhorns and leading the crowd in chants. "The army of industrial workers wants to live!" declared one banner held up by the workers. During the talks with city officials, Yao said the workers would be satisfied if the city paid them what they were owed and investigated their allegations of corruption, people in the room said. But on March 17, Yao was the first to be arrested.

Eight months later, he is still in jail. He has not been tried, and his attorney has not been permitted to see him. Responding to a query by U.N. human rights officials, the Chinese government said Yao has been charged with "illegal assembly, parades and demonstrations" and accused him of "taking advantage of worker dissatisfaction" to carry out "destructive activities," including storming into city hall and wrecking a public bus.

Yao remains defiant in prison, and he has told his wife and daughter to prepare for a long separation, according to a transcript of their conversation during a recent visit. He instructed his family not to accept donations from Ferroalloy workers who want to help him. "Every country has protests. The United States is such a large, civilized nation with rule of law, and don't they have protests? But the Communist Party arrests me just for this," he said, according to the transcript. "I have no regrets, no regrets. Why should I? I didn't oppose the party. I didn't oppose socialism. We just wanted food to eat."

Pressure Tactics

The day after police arrested Yao, tens of thousands of workers responded by returning to the streets and demanding his release. The next day, March 19, nearly 10,000 workers protested, witnesses recalled.

But on March 20, it was raining, and police sealed off many of the streets leading to Democracy Road, one of the city's main thoroughfares. Only a few thousand workers made it to city hall. On their way home, police ambushed them and dragged away Pang, Xiao and another organizer, Wang Zhaoming, 39.

The next day, state media said a "tiny minority of people with ulterior motives" would be punished, while also announcing what appeared to be a concession: The city was investigating the charges of corruption and distributing half of the back pay owed to the Ferroalloy workers.

The movement was at a crossroads, but the labor organizers had planned for this. A stocky, outspoken Ferroalloy worker, Chen Dianfan, was supposed to take the lead now that Yao, Pang and Xiao had been arrested, workers said.

Chen, who is in his sixties, had been a pillar of the movement, an old friend whom Yao, Pang and Xiao believed they could count on, workers and relatives said. He had been at their side on the first days of the protests, and he took part in the negotiations with city officials, complaining about the problems his children were having finding jobs.

But now Chen was nowhere to be found. Hundreds of workers gathered outside his apartment building on the afternoon of March 22, waiting for him to come out and tell them what to do, but he never showed up, workers said.

A Chinese scholar researching labor issues in Liaoyang met with Chen that week and said he appeared angry about the arrests of his friends, but also seemed frightened and extremely nervous. Chen was uncertain how to proceed, and asked for advice, he said. Days later, hundreds of workers staged a protest outside the gates of the Ferroalloy Factory. Chen showed up, but he was tense and declined to address the crowd, workers recalled.

At one point, workers were discussing the fate of Yao and the three other detained leaders. According to one senior organizer who was present, Chen said he believed the four would definitely be sentenced.

"I knew then that he had been paid off, that he was trying to intimidate people for the government," the organizer said. "I was stunned, because we had worked together for so long."

Others were not convinced. Chen had been among the most enthusiastic of the organizers, a party member and "model worker" who felt betrayed by the changes at Ferroalloy. In the meetings in early March, Chen had even proposed organizing workers to lie down on the railroad tracks in protest. Yao convinced him that was going too far, workers said.

But as the days passed, the doubts about Chen grew. Later, workers learned he had landed a job in the cafeteria of one of the Ferroalloy plants that had been sold. Workers asked how he managed to find a job when men half his age could not and other labor activists appeared to be blacklisted. "Nobody talks to him any more," said the senior organizer.

Reached by telephone, Chen acknowledged he had been given a job in the cafeteria but he refused to say if police had paid him off with it. "I can't answer your questions," he said. He said his phone was tapped, and he was unwilling to meet in person because he was under strict police surveillance.

Before hanging up, Chen said he still supported Yao and the other detained workers, but said he was too scared to continue with the protests. "The four people arrested were good friends of mine, and we had a very good relationship," he said. "They were candid and straightforward men, and all they wanted was welfare payments and better treatment for our workers. They were treated unjustly.

"But you have to understand, I came under intense pressure from above after they were arrested. I was told I would be sent to prison if I dared do anything similar."

'We Should Still Keep Fighting'

After Chen abandoned the workers, the movement began to disintegrate. The protests to free Yao and the others attracted fewer and fewer people, and by April, they stopped altogether. Meanwhile, police were making their way down a list of more than 50 worker leaders, visiting one after another.

Fearful of arrest, unsure who to trust, the organizers split up and went into hiding. Some quickly burned leftover protest notices, worried police would search their apartments. "We were upset, depressed, angry, just trying to ride out the storm," recalled Tie, a gruff, nervous chain-smoker unable to sit still. "Through that whole time, I didn't dare go home. Two police officers had already been there looking for me."

Tie said he and another organizer went into hiding together, staying with different workers every night, sleeping fitfully on couches or old mattresses. Weeks passed before Tie decided it was safe to return home. Police had caught several of the worker leaders by then, and witnesses said one was beaten, but all of them were released after questioning. Just days after Tie began sleeping in his own bed again, officers showed up and took him into custody.

At a local police station, they interrogated him for nearly nine hours, asking about how the protests were organized and who attended the planning meetings. "I just kept saying I didn't know, and eventually, they let me go," he said.

In later visits, Tie said, police took a softer approach, commenting on his family's economic difficulties and offering money to help him out. Tie declined the offer, but the sessions haunted him. He wondered how other organizers would bear up. "My conscience wouldn't let me take the money," he said. "But people are different, and they respond to this kind of pressure in different ways."

Tie said all the organizers are more circumspect with each other now. "I don't know if they've sold out," he said, "and they don't know if I have."

In early May, posters appeared in Liaoyang calling for more demonstrations to demand the release of the detained worker leaders. Tie didn't know who put them up, but despite his brush with the police, he decided to participate. Standing with hundreds of workers outside city hall, a younger organizer approached him and struck up a conversation, he recalled.

The organizer asked Tie if he knew who put up the posters. In many ways, it was a natural question; in order to regroup, workers needed to find out who was still willing to fight. But Tie was wary.

The worker had played a key role in the earlier demonstrations, but there were rumors about him now. His wife died of cancer, and he was burdened by debt from her medical bills. He also supported a teenage son. Some workers said he was accepting money from the police and spying for them.

Tie decided to stay away from him. Later, he appeared shaken when describing the encounter. Asked what he would do if he was in the man's situation, Tie hesitated, then said he wasn't sure. "I kind of sympathize with him, but hate him as well," he said.

In late September, Tie mustered the courage to try organizing a protest himself. He and a few friends made paste by boiling a mixture of water and flour, then used it to put up posters in the middle of the night. Turnout for the protest was limited, in part because the city quickly distributed more money to the workers. But in November, when Tie and others tried a third time, nearly 2,000 workers from different factories took part in demonstrations timed to occur before a national Communist Party congress in Beijing.

Many workers say Yao and the other detained organizers are heroes, and Tie believes workers would protest in large numbers if the men were put on trial. Perhaps in a tactic to divide the workers, police last week released two of the leaders, Pang and Wang, on supervised bail. People who spoke to them said they have been ordered both to stay away from other workers and to spy on them.

Authorities may be considering more serious charges against Yao and Xiao, because police have repeatedly asked Tie and other workers whether the men were members of the banned China Democracy Party.

Tie is often pessimistic about the labor movement's chances, depressed about the ease with which workers can be divided and the personal costs of the struggle. "In China, even if you break your head against the wall, it's no use," he said during one meeting. "All we can do is wait for the revolution."

But recently, he argued that more people are willing to challenge the government because conditions are getting worse. Workers stay off the streets out of fear, not contentment, he said, and as long as that's the case, there is the possibility of change.

"I don't think about giving up," he said. "Even if it's a few people, we should still keep fighting."

Onlookers and protesters examined a banner calling for the release of labor leaders in front of city government offices in Liaoyang on March 21.On March 20, Chinese soldiers in Liaoyang prepared to break up a crowd protesting the arrest of labor leaders. The show of force succeeded in dispersing the protestors. Labor leaders Chen Dianfan, rear, Pang Qingxiang and Yao Fuxin, front, visited Beijing last year to petition for an investigation into suspected corruption at the Liaoyang Ferroalloy Factory.