A Chinese activist who dared to criticise the Olympics while lobbying for farmers' rights goes on trial tomorrow for subversion, a sign of growing official intolerance of any dissent over the Games.
Yang Chunlin, an unemployed factory worker from Jiamusi city in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, faces charges of subverting state power for his activism, which has involved petitions, denouncing government corruption and seeking democratic reform of the one-party state.
Last year he helped organise a petition, which was signed by 10,000 villagers, over a land dispute. It declared: "We don't want the Olympics, we want human rights."
Mr Yang's timing couldn't be worse, as sensitivities about the Games are high. He could face several years in jail for criticising the Olympics, which are seen as a crucial way for the government to highlight China's economic prosperity, social cohesion and the economic fruits of its 30 years of opening up and reforms.
But the Communist Party brooks no dissent and has kept dissidents on a tight rein. Police recently formally arrested the prominent Beijing dissident Hu Jia, who was detained for inciting subversion after vocally supporting campaigns for democratic reform, Aids patients and environmental protection. He is in custody and there has been no word on when he will face trial.
Mr Yang, 51, goes on trial at the Jiamusi City Intermediate People's Court in Heilongjiang tomorrow on charges of "inciting subversion of state power", the same charge levelled against Mr Hu. This month, a Chinese court sentenced the democracy activist Lu Gengsong to four years in prison on the same charge.
According to his sister, Mr Yang was tortured while in detention, including having his arms and legs stretched and chained to the corners of an iron bed.
His sister, Yang Chunping, said her family had not been allowed to visit her brother since he was held by police in July. Early this year, two other locals who backed farmers' demands, Yu Changwu and Wang Guilin, were sentenced to 18 months' "re-education through labour".
There are many activists in China who are trying to highlight the problems of property disputes and illegal land-grabs. Corrupt local cadres often side with unscrupulous property developers, sometimes leading to riots. Wary of the politically destabilising effects of these demonstrations, the government has pledged to clamp down on corruption.
What has set Mr Yang's case apart, and what has most likely led to the serious charge of subversion, is the fact he mentioned the Olympics in his campaigns.
The leadership in Beijing was clearly stung by international criticism after the American film director Steven Spielberg's decision to quit as artistic adviser to the Olympics, and has stepped up the spin.
After initial inertia, state media has been critical of Spielberg and has defended Beijing's record on Darfur. The Xinhua news agency ran an interview at the weekend with China's ambassador to Sudan, Li Chengwen. "China is very concerned about the crisis in Darfur, and we have been making unremitting efforts to help resolve the crisis," Mr Li said.
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