A retired businesswoman and popular online activist was sentenced to nine months in jail Friday for staging a protest on behalf of other activists in a case that shows the government's unease about vocal, Internet-empowered social campaigners.
A Beijing court took 10 minutes to sentence Wang Lihong, after convicting the 56-year-old of the vaguely worded charge of creating a disturbance in another province.
The sentence seemed relatively light, given the government's often harsh treatment of dissent and compared with a maximum allowable punishment of five years for the crime. It came after a pressure campaign by her supporters, Western governments and human rights groups.
Still, Wang's family and the two dozen or so supporters who came to the courthouse on Beijing's rural fringe did not see the prison term as lenient.
"One day is heavy enough, and each day gets heavier," her son, Qi Jianxiang, told reporters. He said his mother, who has already served five months in jail, planned to appeal the verdict because "we think it is not fair. She's not guilty."
Authorities prosecuted Wang for taking part in a noisy protest last year outside a southern China courthouse where three bloggers were on trial. But her detention in March amid arrest sweeps to prevent Chinese from copying the democratic uprisings in Arab countries lent the impression that she was being punished for her broader activism. Her case came to symbolize Chinese leaders' rising wariness about a public that is wired to the Internet and upset at social injustice.
In recent months, signs of discord have abounded, with riots by rural migrants, caustic reactions to the government's handling of a train collision on the showcase high-speed rail system and a 10,000-person strong protest over a chemical plant. The Internet and mobile phones amplified the discontent.
Upon being sentenced, Wang told her son, "Give my regards to the Internet," he recounted to reporters. "'Tell everyone that.'"
The online activist community in which Wang had become a well-liked, sisterly figure rallied to her defense.
Ai Weiwei, the internationally known avant-garde artist who was also detained in the spring clampdown, broke the gag-order police imposed when they released him and appealed for help for Wang.
"If you have a mother, if you are a woman, if you are an ordinary person, if you hope not to be disappeared or to be falsely accused, please pay attention to Wang Lihong," Ai said on his Twitter feed last month.
Supporters, some of whom had taken part in previous demonstrations with Wang, came to the court, vowing to continue campaigning, as did U.S. and European Union diplomats. Several high-profile activists were ordered to stay home by police, who by the dozens were stationed outside the courthouse, watching and videotaping the crowd.
John Kamm, a veteran human right lobbyist whose advice is often sought by Western governments, said that Wang's name appeared on lists of prisoners that the U.S. and EU issued to Chinese officials during talks on human rights. All the attention, he said, may have nudged the government to be lenient.
"There are signs that the criticisms leveled against them in recent months may have had an effect," said Kamm.
Known as energetic and feisty, Wang made a living renovating and renting basement apartment buildings. She had grown outraged in recent years at officials' abuse of power and, after retiring in 2008, took to blogging and using the Internet, joining and organizing campaigns.
After three bloggers were accused of slander for trying to help a woman persuade authorities to reinvestigate her daughter's death, Wang went with 30 others to the southern city of Fuzhou to attend the trial in April 2010. Wang held a megaphone and led the crowd in chants as they protested outside the courthouse.
When imprisoned democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, Wang was among the few to join a celebratory public demonstration in a Beijing park. She was detained for eight days.
"Sister Wang is a person full of love, a person with a sense of public responsibility," said Zhao Tangqin, a fellow activist gathered at the courthouse. "In my judgment, when she comes out after her nine-month sentence she will use her active, good heart to do what? To establish a society ruled by law, a democratic society."