Two years ago, Liu Ping, one of three anticorruption activists sentenced on Thursday to prison terms of up to six and a half years, said she wanted to change China “one vote at a time.”
Liao Minyue, via Associated Press
Ms. Liu, now 49, spoke those words in an interview in Beijing, a year after running unsuccessfully for a seat in the local People’s Congress in her hometown of Xinyu, Jiangxi Province. Local corruption and injustice were overwhelming, she said, as she took her candidacy for a position bestowed on those who enjoy the blessing of the Communist Party — which Ms. Liu did not — to the streets, with a megaphone.
She stood on bridges and in parks. She drew crowds. And she attracted national attention, spawning other candidacies. Virtually all were defeated.
For that and other similar activism, Ms. Liu, a retired steel factory worker, was harassed, kidnapped and then beaten in detention by officials, she said, in accounts corroborated by friends and human rights groups.
Next she turned her attention to the New Citizens Movement, a nationwide campaign loosely led by the activists Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi to get officials to disclose their assets. Ms. Liu asked people to sign up in Skype messages, her preferred form of communication. Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding were imprisoned this year.
Finally, she was detained in April last year, after having a lunch with like-minded friends at her home and then appearing with them while holding up a banner calling on officials to disclose their assets. Photographs of the banner, as well as calls for prisoners of conscience to be released, were distributed on the Internet, her lawyer, Si Weijiang, said in a statement to the Yushu District People’s Court in Xinyu.
On Thursday the court issued verdicts finding Ms. Liu and two fellow activists, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua, guilty of “provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Ms. Liu and Mr. Wei were also found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” and “using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement.” They were sentenced to six and a half years in prison, while Mr. Li was given a three-year sentence.
Afterward, Zhou Ze, the only defense lawyer of about half a dozen involved in the case who was able to attend the sentencing due to the very short notice given by the court, said: “The sentences were unjust.”
Mr. Zhou spoke hurriedly by telephone from Xinyu, adding that it was “not convenient to talk,” often a signal that a person is under surveillance.
Few of the defendants’ relatives had been admitted to the court to hear the sentencing, Mr. Zhou said. “The courtroom was full of people. I don’t know who they were. Probably court employees.”
Human rights advocates have accused China’s courts of denying access to relatives and supporters of defendants in rights trials, and packing courtrooms with officials instead.
In a statement, the New Citizens Movement, which still has a website even though most of its leaders are now in prison, called the sentences “heavy.”
“This is crazed and shameless retaliation that has nothing to do with the legal system or the law,” it said. “It is not only retaliation against Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua, but a retaliation against and dishonoring of citizens’ rights.”
It concluded, “History will remember all this. The day will come. The shameful ones will be ashamed of themselves. Our beliefs are unbending.”
Adding to concerns for the well-being of the detainees, Ms. Liu was taken into custody just weeks after an operation to remove gallstones that left her weakened. Her daughter, Liao Minyue, 21, a university student majoring in finance, said after the trial of the three ended in December that her mother looked thinner and “sallow.”
On Thursday Ms. Liao said by telephone of the sentencing, “I think it’s ridiculous. I’m so angry I don’t even know what to say.”
Repeated calls for comment to the Xinyu court, to a number that worked on Wednesday, were met by a message: “Sorry, the number you dialed is not reachable.”
Ms. Liao said she had been told she would not be permitted to attend the sentencing, as had Ms. Liu’s mother. In the end, Ms. Liao stayed at her university.
“Outside the courtroom hooligans are everywhere, to keep us out,” she said, “though my mother’s brother did go.”
She said she did not know yet if her mother would appeal the sentence.
“What this court has done is so illegal I’m not sure there’s any point,” she said. “But we haven’t made up our minds yet. We’re reserving a decision.”
Since coming to power, President Xi Jinping has started a highly publicized campaign to defeat corruption, but his administration has also seen an unusually hard crackdown on rights activists, including anticorruption campaigners.
“The sentences seem harsh,” Renee Xia of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, said in an email. “This seems to indicate that Xi Jinping is showing that he is not bowing to international pressure despite the strong denouncement of Xu Zhiyong’s four-year sentence.”
“Of course,” Ms. Xia added, “this escalation of persecution against the anticorruption activists raises further doubt about Xi Jinping’s sincerity in taking on corrupt officials.”