A report by Human Rights Watch/Asia and Human Rights in China, published today, describes the charges as 'a clear attempt to discredit them (the activists) both at home and abroad'.
The report highlights the case of China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who has been held incommunicado at a secret location for six months.
Among those sentenced this year is Tong Yi, 26, who reported the arrest of Mr Wei to the foreign media earlier this year. She was detained in April and then formally charged in August with 'forging an official seal', allegedly on an application to study abroad.
Zhang Lin, 32, a labour activist in Anhui province, was arrested in June on charges of 'hooliganism' because he was living with his wife and newborn daughter without being officially married. He was sentenced to three years re-education through labour.
Yan Zhengxue, an artist and representative to the People's Congress from Zhejiang province, was beaten by police after a row with a bus conductor in Peking last year.
He subsequently won a lawsuit against the police, but his two lawyers were then arrested. After the case, Mr Yan was arrested for stealing a bicycle, and in April sentenced to two years' re-education through labour.
One of the lawyers, Yuan Hongbing, was involved in the founding charter of the League for the Protection of the Rights of Working People. He was arrested on charges that included 'inciting turmoil and disrupting social order'.
The Chinese authorities have often found it expedient to use criminal rather than political charges. A list recently provided to Human Rights Watch/Asia includes about 80 new names of people imprisoned since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Their offences range from arson to 'disrupting traffic'. These prisoners were not previously known to human rights groups.
'The use of criminal instead of political charges against dissidents means, among other things, that the number of political prisoners and detainees is far higher than the roughly 3,000 men and women convicted of 'counter-revolution' that the Chinese government has acknowledged currently holding,' according to the human rights group.
After June 1989, many ordinary people were arrested on petty charges and they often received much harsher sentences than the prominent students and intellectuals who were imprisoned.