“AS FAR AS WE, state security, can tell, there are no more than 200 intellectuals in the country who oppose the Communist Party and are influential. If the central authorities think that their rule is facing a crisis, they can capture them all in one night and bury them alive.”

So said a Chinese state security officer to the dissident Yu Jie on Dec. 9, 2010 — the day before his good friend Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. In a statement last week, Mr. Yu, a well-known writer and Christian activist, said that he was beaten nearly to death that night, then held under house arrest for more than a year. He finally was allowed to travel with his family to Washington on Jan. 11; in a news conference, he vowed to “make public to the international community all that I have endured over this past year” and to publish books about Mr. Liu and President Hu Jintao, whom he calls a “cold-blooded tyrant.”

Mr. Yu is having an impact. According to the Wall Street Journal, the phrase “bury them alive” has gone viral on the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo. And no wonder: In the past few weeks Mr. Hu’s regime has appeared to be implementing the thuggish cop’s threat, at least figuratively.

While Mr. Yu was pushed out of the country, three other pro-democracy writers have been given long prison sentences. The most recent is Li Tie, 52, who was handed a 10-year prison term on Wednesday in the city of Wuhan, in central China. Mr. Lie’s crimes, according to the regime, included joining the China Social Democratic Party and writing essays with such titles as “Human Beings’ Heaven is Human Dignity.”

Last month democracy activists Chen Wei of Sichuan province and Chen Xi of Guizhou province were given similar jail terms for writings. Last week yet another activist, Zhu Yufu, was charged in Zhejiang province because of a poem he wrote urging Chinese to demand freedom.

The Nobel laureate, Mr. Liu, is two years into an 11-year sentence, while his wife, Liu Xia, is under house arrest.

The reasons for this crackdown are the subject of considerable speculation. Some experts believe the regime is trying to silence dissent ahead of a leadership transition this year that will see Mr. Hu yield to Vice President Xi Jinping.

In a recent television interview, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, brought up the Arab Spring uprisings and posited that “the Chinese leaders are very fearful of something similar happening within China.” With diplomatic understatement, Mr. Locke said that the human rights situation is “in a down period, and it’s getting worse.”

Then there is Mr. Yu’s description: “This increasingly fascist, barbaric, and brutal regime is the greatest threat to the free world and the greatest threat to all freedom-loving people.” Harsh, but not inaccurate.