Wu Gan behind bars at a police station in Nanchang city in eastern China’s Jiangxi province on May 19, 2015. (AP/AP)

THE SWEEPING campaign by China against human rights defenders took another grim turn on Tuesday when a court sentenced Wu Gan to eight years in prison. The accusation was subversion, but his real offense was to dramatize the absurdity of the Chinese police state. Using social media and outlandish performance art, he went by the online handle "Super Vulgar Butcher" and likened himself to a meat cutter who was making short work of those who violate human rights. He insists he eschewed violence and did not break the law. He was detained in 2015 as China began a massive crackdown against human rights lawyers and defenders.

After the harsh sentence was imposed in Tianjin, Mr. Wu delivered an eloquent statement through his lawyers, speaking with clarity and courage. "For those living under a dictatorship," he declared, "being given the honorable label of one who 'subverts state power' is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It's proof that the citizen wasn't an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights."

The authorities, he said, attempted to force him to plead guilty and cooperate in propaganda videos in exchange for a suspended sentence. "I rejected it all. My eight-year sentence doesn't make me indignant or hopeless. This was what I chose for myself: when you oppose the dictatorship, it means you are already walking on the path to jail.

"I'm optimistic despite the harsh sentence," he said. "Because of the internet, more and more people are waking up. The ranks of those ready to stand at the funeral of the dictatorship is growing stronger and larger by the day. Those who try to use jail to frighten citizens pursuing freedom and democracy, thus obstructing the progress of human civilization, won't meet a good end. Their tyranny is based on a lack of self-confidence — a sign of a guilty conscience and fear. It's a dead end. When the masses wake up, will the dictatorship's end be far off?

"I have been subjected to torture and other forms of inhumane treatment during my detention thus far — and it's not an isolated occurrence, but a common phenomenon. I appeal to the international community to closely follow the deterioration of human rights in China, follow the Chinese Communist Party's criminal detention of its own citizens, and especially of dissidents, along with the other abuses they're subjected to, including: false charges, secret detention, forced confessions to the media, forced appointment of state-controlled defense counsel, torture and abuse in custody, and the stripping of every civil right of Chinese citizens." He then identified by name the individuals who tormented him.

Mr. Wu's candor will not earn him any leniency, but it deserves to be heard far and wide. Like the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died in Chinese custody, imprisoned for having championed democracy, Mr. Wu is holding aloft a torch of liberty at great personal cost.