Li, from Wuhan city in Hubei province, was sentenced Wednesday, his family members said. He was not allowed to hire a lawyer.
Human rights groups outside China say the three recent sentences far exceed those normally given in such cases and perhaps reflect official nervousness about the first anniversary of the Middle East uprisings known as the Arab Spring, which prompted shadowy Internet calls for similar protests in China.
On Dec. 26, a court in Guizhou province sentenced a veteran human rights campaigner, Chen Xi, to 10 years in prison. Three days earlier in Sichuan province, activist Chen Wei was sentenced to nine years. Both were convicted of “inciting subversion of state power.”
Another activist, Zhu Yufu, was charged this week with the same crime after he posted a poem online titled “It’s Time,” which urges the Chinese people to stand up for their freedoms.
This is a crucial year for China’s ruling Communist Party, which is preparing for the first top-level leadership changes in a decade. Analysts say authorities are worried about anything that could disrupt the carefully choreographed shuffle in which Vice President Xi Jinping is slated to take over as general secretary of the party and, later, as the country’s president.
Leadership changes are typically closed-door affairs in China, with the new general secretary and the powerful nine-member ruling Politburo Standing Committee introduced onstage at an autumn Party Congress in Beijing once all the backroom dealmaking is complete. Ordinary Chinese citizens play no part, other than as spectators.
But this will also be the first leadership change to take place in an age when tens of millions of Chinese feel empowered to speak out through the hugely popular Twitter-like microblogging sites collectively known here as “weibo.” The weibo sites have given many Chinese a source of once-censored information and a new outlet for voicing opinions once deemed too sensitive even to whisper in public.
Recent official statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center showed there are now 513 million Internet users in the country of 1.3 billion people. The number of microbloggers quadrupled in 2011, to 250 million.
This week, authorities signaled that they are trying to bring that relatively freewheeling microblogging world under tighter control. A handful of eastern cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, have been experimenting with a pilot program that requires people signing up for weibo accounts to register with their real names and identity card numbers, making it easier to trace them if they post something the government doesn’t like.