The owner of a cybercafe has been handed an eight-year jail term for "subversion," his lawyer said Thursday amid a security clampdown as the ruling Chinese Communist Party held a plenary meeting to prepare for the 18th Party Congress next week.
Cao Haibo, 27, was handed the sentence by a court in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming on Wednesday after he called online for democracy and tried to form an opposition party, his lawyer said.
"They informed us this morning," Cao's lawyer Ma Xiaopeng said. "They just handed down the sentence without a hearing."
"They just called me on the phone to tell me that Cao Haibo was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment yesterday," Ma said.
Cao's sentencing comes as the Chinese authorities launched a nationwide security clampdown, sending rights activists to labor camps and forcing lawyers and dissidents to leave their homes ahead of the Party Congress on Nov. 8 at which a once-in-a-decade leadership transition is expected to be endorsed.
The charge of "subversion" is more serious than "incitement to subversion," which is typically used to sentence political critics.
Tried in secret
Ma said that Cao was tried in secret on May 22 after his case was decreed to contain state secrets, and his father and wife were denied permission to attend.
Cao had called for democracy and had tried to form a party called the China Republican Party, but Ma told Reuters that he believes his client has little understanding of China's political situation and resembles a "naive child."
Cao's wife, Zhang Nian, said her husband liked to spend time online, and had set up a QQ chat group in November 2010 to discuss democracy.
Ma said he had argued that Cao was not guilty of subversion.
"I thought he shouldn't have received a criminal sentence at all," he said.
"They are really not pulling any punches these days."
Calls for reform
Cao's sentencing comes amid growing calls for political reform from rights activists, but while official media has promised reforms to some structures and institutions, it has also made clear that China won't be adopting Western-style democracy.
Zhang Nian said she would be allowed to visit Cao next week. "They informed the lawyer, but they never informed me of this sentence," she said.
"I definitely think this sentence is far too harsh," she said. "We will certainly be appealing."
She said Cao's sentencing has left her with an infant son to take care of, and no source of income.
"I haven't got a job yet, and if he is inside for eight years, there's only myself to depend on," Zhang said.
The overseas-based rights group China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) hit out at the clampdown on activists, which it said was tougher than usual because of the forthcoming leadership transition.
"China’s top political leaders are very nervous, as they have since early this year been consumed by one of the most destabilizing and disharmonious power struggles in decades," said the group's international director Renee Xia, in a reference to the political scandal that enveloped the Party with the fall of Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai.
Party under pressure
Political analysts say the Party is under additional pressure following the fall of Bo, whose wife, Gu Kailai, was handed a suspended death sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in August.
CHRD estimated that at least hundreds, if not thousands, have had their personal liberty restricted or removed in the run-up to the Congress.
The group added that "the future looks no brighter than it did a decade ago, which bodes poorly for the many who long for greater protection for human rights under a democratic system with rule of law in China."
The 300-strong Party central committee meeting on Thursday was to discuss, among other things, the work report by the central commission for discipline inspection, the arm of the Party which has been dealing with the Bo scandal, official media reported.
China's parliament announced last week that it had expelled fallen Chinese political star Bo Xilai from its ranks following accusations of corruption and sexual misconduct, removing the former Chongqing Party chief's parliamentary privilege and paving the way for a trial.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.