(Guardian)- Protesters gathered outside a Beijing court on Friday as a Chinese internet activist went on trial in a case the demonstrators see as a warning shot to other rights campaigners.
Wang Lihong faces up to five years in prison for “creating a disturbance”. She was detained in March amid a sweeping crackdown on the rights movement, apparently triggered by government fears of protests inspired by the Arab spring.
The leading Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was himself held for 81 days, tweeted this week: “If you don’t speak for Wang Lihong, and don’t speak for Ran Yunfei [a detained blogger released the next day], you are not only a person who will not stand up for fairness and justice; you do not have self-respect.”
The charges relate to a demonstration outside a court in Fuzhou, southern China, last year to support three bloggers accused of defamation after helping a woman who wanted officials to reinvestigate her daughter’s death.
Activists from around the country travelled to the hearing after reading about the case online.
Supporters believe the authorities may have been particularly concerned because it showed how online dissent could lead to on-the-ground action. Wang, who is 56, is accused of organising protesters, her son said.
Han Yicun, one of her lawyers, said the judge obstructed the defence by interrupting both him and Wang repeatedly.
Representatives from several embassies and the EU were allowed into the building, but were not permitted to observe the case. Supporters – outnumbered by the many uniformed and plainclothes police officers – chanted “Wang Lihong, come home” and “Wang Lihong, not guilty”.
“Current Chinese society is punishing the kind-hearted and promoting evil,” said Wang’s son Qi Jianxiang, her one supporter in the courtroom.
“There are fewer and fewer people fighting for other people’s interests. The judge said: ‘You do not have any family ties with the bloggers; why did you go [to Fuzhou]?’
“Their logic is that Chinese people do not participate in public affairs … [and] no matter how much pain others are in, it’s none of your business.”
Qi said Wang became involved in activism three years ago after reading about Yang Jia, who was executed for killing six Shanghai police officers in retaliation for alleged police brutality.
She also highlighted the case of Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed to death an official who had demanded sex.
Wang also celebrated when the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel peace prize last year, telling the Associated Press: “I think the most important thing is that every person learns how to be their own citizen, and not become someone else’s subordinate.”
No date has been set for Wang’s next court appearance. Guilty verdicts are a near certainty in such cases, although occasionally courts have quietly released defendants on bail.
Outside the court, security officials tried to drag away Zhao Lianhai, who was jailed for campaigning over a tainted milk scandal after his baby became ill, but stopped when others intervened.
“After I was put in jail, sister Wang cared about me and went to visit my wife and children … without her, I wouldn’t have freedom today,” Zhao said. “Maybe we can’t change anything by coming here, but we want to express our beliefs.”
He added: “She didn’t break the law – she was helping citizens according to the law … [China's] laws only help privileged people to pursue their power.”
Others said they did not know Wang personally but felt they had a duty to attend because she had helped so many people.
“I think everyone in this country should support her. [Wang] is honest and selfless,” Sun Liwei said.
Zhao Changqing, another activist, said: “She’s a kind-hearted person with a conscience and a very strong sense of civic responsibility.”