The New York Times
By Chris Buckley
■ Beijing — Three civil rights advocates were sentenced to prison in southern China on Friday, with the terms ranging from two and a half to five years, after a judge declared them guilty of inciting subversion.
The three had been charged for their roles in promoting peaceful civil disobedience, partly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and the ideas of Gene Sharp, an influential American theorist of nonviolent political movements.
Tang Jingling, Yuan Chaoyang and Wang Qingying were present in the courtroom in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, when the verdicts were announced.
Mr. Tang, a lawyer who had been denied a license to practice, was sentenced to five years; Mr. Yuan, a writer who also used the name Yuan Xinting, received a sentence of three and a half years; and Mr. Wang, a college professor who lost his job because of his political activism, received two and a half years.
“Mr. Tang told the court that it had become a tool of political persecution,” Hu Xinfan, a lawyer for Mr. Yuan said by telephone after the hearing. “He said he wouldn’t appeal against the sentence, because he didn’t recognize the legitimacy of the court,” Mr. Hu added. “He said it very calmly, very steady. The two other defendants are still considering whether to appeal.”
The “Three Gentlemen of Guangzhou,” as supporters called them, were detained by the police in May 2014, more than a year before the most recent wave of arrests of civil rights lawyers and other activists inChina. Their case has offered a trial run for the Communist Party’s latest drive to silence rights advocates accused of challenging the party’s power, which started in July last year, said Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch.
So far, at least 15 lawyers, law firm employees and other activists caught up in the crackdown have been arrested on charges of subversion of state power or of inciting subversion, said Patrick Poon, a researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong.
“The verdict against the trio indicates somewhat the authorities’ attitudes toward others charged for subversion,” said Ms. Wang, who is based in Hong Kong. “They want to gauge the reaction to their verdicts to see how much they can get away with.”
The three men’s sentences will be calculated as starting from their detention in 2014, Mr. Hu said.
Mr. Tang, Mr. Yuan and Mr. Wang were at first charged with “creating a disturbance,” a catchall term for undermining public order. But a month later, they were arrested on the more serious charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Their trial began in June last year.
The first hearing ended abruptly after the defendants dismissed their lawyers to protest restrictions on calling witnesses and the judges’ refusal to recuse themselves. Mr. Tang argued that they should stand aside if they were members of the Communist Party. The trial restarted a month later.
During the trial, Mr. Tang submitted a long written defense, which described his role in China’s movement of rights defense lawyers — from its flowering over a decade ago to the latest efforts under President Xi Jinping to dismantle it.
Mr. Tang, 44, who was born in Hubei Province in central China, said he was inspired in his pursuit of a law career by attorneys who had challenged the government’s campaign to eradicate the Falun Gong spiritual sect. Members of the sect had surrounded the Communist Party headquarters in Beijing in 1999.
“If lawyers as a profession want to be more than a trade for charlatans,” Mr. Tang wrote, “I believe that it must lie in their full understanding and steadfast defense of the spirit of rule of law — of the values of freedom, human rights, equality.”
Beginning in late 2005, the authorities in Guangdong refused to approve Mr. Tang’s registration so he could work in a law firm, but he did some work as a consultant, his wife, Wang Yanfang, said in a telephone interview. He also continued to campaign for contentious causes, and grew increasingly interested in using civil disobedience to advance democratic change.
The accusations of inciting subversion against the three included the charge that they shared Chinese translations of the works of Mr. Sharp, a former professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, whose guides to nonviolent protest influenced the Arab Spring and other movements.
“Tang Jingling wanted to use these ideas, methods and experiences in China,” said Ms. Wang, his wife. “That didn’t amount to inciting subversion. He sees it as a way of addressing social issues. But the prosecutors said that these books were politically erroneous.”
The three men were detained as Communist Party leaders were growing worried that a pro-democracy campaign in Hong Kong, a city with its own administration and legal system, would spill into mainland China.
The police raided the men’s homes and a rented room and seized Chinese books, including translations of Mr. Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy.”
The police also seized 6,000 bookmarks embossed with the Chinese words “civil disobedience movement,” a prosecutor said.
“Their peaceful and legitimate work never threatened state security,” said Mr. Poon of Amnesty International. “This is solely about the authorities arbitrarily silencing government critics.”
Follow Chris Buckley on Twitter @ChuBailiang.
Adam Wu contributed research.