A series of trials of anti-corruption activists in recent days is a clear indication of a worsening climate for political debate and rights activism, lawyers and experts say.
Authorities in the Chinese capital put on trial four more members of the New Citizens' Movement activist group on public order charges on Monday, prompting three of them to dismiss their legal team in protest at what they said was an unfair hearing.
Their trials came a day after the sentencing of Xu Zhiyong, a co-founder of the New Citizens' Movement which has campaigned for the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership to reveal details of their wealth, and that of their families, to four years' imprisonment for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, said Xu's conviction shows a worsening political climate in China.
"Looking at the overall trends, the political environment looks much harsher now than it did before," Li said.
Lesson from Ukraine?
He said Beijing's current leadership is casting a wary eye at events in Ukraine, where mass opposition protests have besieged government buildings in the capital for weeks.
"This can serve as a lesson [to Beijing], one which proves that their 'strike hard' policies and tighter crackdowns are necessary," Li said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Tang Jitian agreed. "They are allowing people a bit of economic freedom, but subjectively I would say that politically, things have got tighter," he said.
And Beijing legal scholar Teng Biao, who is currently on a visit to the United States, said Xu's jailing is "no ordinary case."
"This is a political case ... and the trial was unjust from start to finish," Teng said. "They wouldn't let the lawyers get involved, including not letting them meet with [Xu]."
But he said Xu had made "full mental preparations" for his jail sentence.
"Xu's Zhiyong's belief in democracy and the rule of law for China is very strong," Teng added.
Arguments 'of no use'
A day after Xu's jailing, fellow New Citizens Movement members Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhang Baocheng, and Yuan Dong all stood trial on the same charges at the Haidian District People's Court.
Lawyers for the four cited a number of procedural issues with the case.
Ding's lawyer Wang Xin said the case had been brought by prosecutors from a higher court, however, flouting relevant laws.
"Prosecutors from the No. 2 Intermediate People's Court acted as prosecutors in the court of the first instance," Wang said.
Li Wei's lawyer Wang Quanzhang said that while Ding, Zhang, and Yuan had dismissed their legal team in protest, prompting the hearing to be adjourned, Li had not.
The authorities appeared unhappy with the move.
"The judge said that he would seek to punish me for this," Zhang's lawyer Chen Jiangang told RFA. "This trial was totally ridiculous, and our arguments were of no use whatsoever."
Second jail term seen
Also on Monday, police released Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia, who said he expects a second jail term in retaliation for his continued activism in recent months.
Hu, a close friend and vocal supporter of Xu and the New Citizens' Movement, was released from police custody after being held for 24 hours following a week-long period of house arrest ahead of Xu's trial.
Hu said state security police questioned him closely during his detention about his activities over the past few months, including his ties to the New Citizens' Movement and his plans for this year's 25th anniversary of the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations.
"I think I am very likely to go to jail a second time," said Hu, who rose to prominence in the civil rights community for his advocacy on behalf of AIDS patients, and who was released from a three-year jail term for subversion in June 2011.
"[I think it will be for] incitement to subvert state power."
"So I think that what they were doing here was in aid of that; that's to say that it could serve as evidence," Hu said.
"I think that under the circumstances, these actions are intended to threaten and warn me [from further activism]," he said.
Hu's detention "on suspicion of causing a disturbance" came as Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate People's Court handed down a four-year jail term to Xu for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
Xu is China's highest-profile dissident to be sentenced to jail since 2009, when Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was jailed for 11 years for subversion after co-authoring "Charter 08," a document that called for sweeping changes to the current system under the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
He was detained in July after organizing street protests in March that called on Chinese leaders to reveal details of their assets and those of their families.
Xu's conviction came four days after a U.S.-based journalism group released a report linking relatives of President Xi Jinping and other party leaders to offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens.
Separately, in southern Guangzhou city on Friday, activist Liu Yuandong was accused in court of gathering a crowd to disrupt public order during a series of street protests last January outside the gates of the Southern Weekly -- to protest against excessive censorship at the influential Chinese newspaper.
Reported by Xin Yu and C.K. for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.