After a year in which visiting foreign leaders have spoken approvingly of China's tentative legal reforms, it took three- and-a-half hours for Xu Wenli, 55, a veteran activist, to be found guilty of subversion and sentenced to 13 years in prison. A fellow dissident, Wang Youcai, 32, was jailed for 11 years on the same charges.
Mr Xu's wife, He Xintong, was the only family member or friend allowed at the closed-door trial in Peking.
She said Mr Xu responded to questions from his court- appointed lawyer but refused to answer questions from the judge, at one point saying: "This is a political persecution." Mr Xu and Mr Wang had tried to set up a China Democracy Party.
After a judge said Mr Xu's refusal to answer questions was contempt, he retorted: "I have the right to keep silent."
The official verdict said that he had "secretly planned" to set up cells for the party and "sought and accepted financial assistance from foreign hostile organisations". No details of the supposed evidence were reported. Mr Wang's trial was held on Thursday in Hangzhou city.
The severity of the sentences shocked Western diplomats, who have been saying dialogue with China over rights had proved a force for change.
It is particularly awkward for Tony Blair, whose visit to Peking in October coincided with Mr Xu being detained by police and held for six hours for questioning.
In Mr Blair's keynote speech in Peking he spoke of Britain's human-rights dialogue with China.
"We have been able to engage the Chinese authorities and, I hope, to influence them," he said on 7 October.
The Prime Minister said that this "process of dialogue" meant such incidents as the detention of a dissident could be discussed "with the Chinese in a spirit of co-operation".
Yesterday the Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett said he was shocked at the speed with which Mr Xu was tried and the severity of his sentence. Mr Fatchett was due last night to dine with Ma Zhengang, China's ambassador to Britain, a meeting at which he will have been able to test the "spirit of co-operation" for discussion of rights issues. The US embassy in Peking described the jail terms as "deplorable".
The trials are embarrassing many Western governments, which welcomed China's recent reforms to its rules on criminal procedure and have backed projects to train Chinese lawyers, judges and court officials in the hope of improving the country's flawed legal system. To coincide with Mr Blair's visit, a British Law Week was held in Peking, including the staging of a mock trial, introduced by the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth QC.
When it comes to punishing dissidents, however, China does not meet even the limited rights provided to defendants under its own new rules.
Mr Xu, who has already spent 12 years in jail for pro-democracy activities, was told only on Friday that he was due in court yesterday.
He ought to have received 10 days' notice. His court- appointed lawyer thus had only the weekend to prepare a defence.
Mr Wang's chosen lawyer was detained and others frightened off, so he had to defend himself. The official Xinhua news agency said yesterday that both men had had "open" trials conducted "according to law".
Qin Yongmin, a China Democracy Party colleague whose trial for subversion was also on Thursday, had three days' notice of his court appearance, and could not find a lawyer in time. His sentence is expected soon.
Mr Xu will not appeal against his sentence, his wife said. "To appeal, he said, would be admitting a crime. And under no circumstance is he willing to admit to this crime."