THE arrest of several labour leaders last month may well have been a stern message from mainland officials to increasingly brazen worker activists. Many officials are worried widespread strikes pose the greatest threat to stability since the student democracy movement was crushed at Tiananmen Square five years ago. However, the daring escape of one of those activists sends an entirely different set of signals to Chinese dissidents and the world. While Wang Jiaqi remains on the run in China, his escape from custody underscores suggestions of widespread corruption in the Public Security Bureau and fuels speculation of mounting sympathy among the ranks for a renewed dissident movement. Wang was arrested early last month with three other labour organisers, apparently in reaction to the publication of a charter for a new worker alliance calling itself the League for the Protection of Working People of the People's Republic of China. One of the four men was quickly released, but prominent labour activist Zhou Guoqiang and lawyer Yuan Hongbing remain in custody. While previously seen as the least prominent of the group, Wang, a 34-year-old postgraduate law student at Beijing University, has added to his dissident reputation by slipping from sight late last month. He is reported to have escaped from custody in Tangshan, a city in Hubei province, east of Beijing. Official mainland media have carried no accounts of his arrest or escape, which is not uncommon, according to a Beijing source. ''You'll only read about an escape at the time of his recapture, since this is something they never publicise,'' he said, terming the escape ''an extremely rare occurrence''. However, former mainland prisoners told the Sunday Morning Post that despite the outside perception of formidable and intensely fortified prison camps, escape is not too difficult. ''You have a very good chance of escape if you have the contacts and the courage,'' said one former prisoner, who requested anonymity. He said top officials, as well as prison guards, were regularly bought off. Dissidents who have escaped, including those who remained on the run for years on the mainland, said with enough money and influential friends, a wanted man might easily elude the authorities. This recalls the extensive underground network by which many Tiananmen figures were transported to safety outside the country. Known as Operation Yellowbird, the network was believed to have been financed and organised from Hong Kong. ''Escapes these days are fairly unusual, but not unheard of,'' said Sophia Woodman, of the United States-based group Human Rights in China. ''But I really don't think there is any real organisation, no formal network. However, there are always sympathetic people who will help.'' Worker actions have grown widespread, with more than 10,000 reported last year by official Chinese publications. Mainland officials have speculated that worker unrest has been stirred up by an organised group of activists. Several human rights groups have accused officials of stepping up surveillance and detention of suspected worker leaders. ''They are out to stamp out all labour activity,'' one source said. ''This is far more threatening to the Chinese regime than a group of students talking about democracy.'' He explained the issue of workers' rights had far more appeal to the peasant population than abstract notions of democracy or human rights. Little is known about Wang, and even less about his life on the run. However, former prisoners and escaped activists can provide some insight into what he might be expected to face. Despite the risk, many strangers will be surprisingly helpful, said Tang Boqiao, a student leader from Hunan who was arrested in July 1989. While in custody he was severely beaten, and persecuted by authorities after his release. He escaped to the UnitedStates through Hong Kong in 1991. While travelling from Guangzhou to Shenzhen, a university teacher posed as his girlfriend to throw his pursuers off the trail. Tang was able to elude authorities partly through the help of friends in the Public Security Bureau and other government offices. His sister was a member of the bureau but was demoted and then dismissed after his escape. Bei Ming and husband Zheng Yi were in hiding for three years. Both were prominent writers prior to undertaking a 100,000-kilometre journey through 12 provinces before finally escaping to US in 1992. ''When we were first living in the underground we were very worried,'' she said. ''However, after a few months we became more relaxed. We just thought that if we were to worry every day, we would go mad.'' Bei said they regularly alternated between safe houses, always wary of being apprehended. Nevertheless, they were able to travel freely for much of the time, albeit in disguise. ''Everything had been arranged very well,'' she said. ''We had time to read, to write, to walk in the streets and even to go out to karaoke lounges.'' However, Bei, like other dissidents, expressed doubt the same resources and community sympathy would be available to Wang. She said that following the Tiananmen crackdown, ''many people were angry. The Government had just shot people and many people wanted to help. Times have changed. Now, many people do nothing. They have forgotten what happened.'' However, a new mood of protest seems to be brewing, and Wang has become part of it.