Those convicted had committed the so-called crime of attempting to register a new political grouping, the Chinese Democracy Party, a freedom to which they are fully entitled. They were denied access to legal representation. Their punishment is an affront to natural justice.
The action dashes hopes that the Chinese government had itself raised. For the last two years, it had seemed to be making progress towards a democratic future. After the horrors of Tiananmen Square, there was talk of a "Peking spring", a new openness to, and tolerance of, dissent.
The Chinese government has made several welcome gestures, including signing up to UN treaties on civil and political rights. The UN Special Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, was met with courtesy on her visit in September; an annual motion at the UN criticising China's human rights record was dropped accordingly.
There has undoubtedly been progress made in the liberalisation of China, not least in the field of the criminal law, as witnessed by the British Prime Minister and his wife on their recent trip to China. The Communist Party's grip on legal training has been loosened; trials have been made more public.
This is all a long way from the madness of the Cultural Revolution, in which millions died. It is increasingly difficult for the Chinese state to maintain a monopoly on news. Internet sites beyond the reach of the authorities are being utilised to mobilise dissent. Expectations are rising. The economy is liberalising, and citizens with an increasing stake in business enterprise are demanding more information about those in charge. Debate has been sparked about "corruption", coded criticism of the ruling elite.
This is why the jailing of these two activists is such a disappointment, an attack on some of the best and brightest Chinese citizens. One of their number, Xu Wenli, has already spent 12 years in prison for his principles. His continued defiance is a testament to his courage. There may be few results from attempting to face down his captors, but the West cannot abandon him and his peers. They must know that they have our moral and political support.
While China has been making concessions to civil rights, political rights are as distant as ever. The one-party state is alive and well - a further embarrassment to the Prime Minister's foreign policy, given his praise of China during his recent visit. Tibet remains occupied. Freedom of speech and political organisation, both fundamental to the Declaration of Human Rights, remain curtailed. Until that changes, China's reforms will remain cosmetic.Reuse content