China’s authorities have formally arrested Wang Gongquan, a well-known entrepreneur, as part of a continuing crackdown on a citizens’ rights movement to which he belonged. (Simon Denyer/The Washington Post)

China’s authorities formally arrested a well-known entrepreneur as part of a continuing crackdown on a citizens rights movement to which he belonged and on dissent in general, his lawyer and activists said Monday.

Wang Gongquan, a respected businessman who had made his fortune in real estate and in Silicon Valley, was placed in criminal detention last month and charged with “gathering people to disturb order in a public occasion.”

(Photo gallery: Leading Chinese dissidents who are detained by China or are exiled in the U.S.)

His formal arrest was made on Sunday, but news of it reached his lawyer on Monday. It increases the likelihood of him receiving a prison sentence.

It comes on the eve of China’s appearance before the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday for a four-yearly examination of its human rights record, and underlines the extent of the Communist Party’s intolerance of peaceful criticism, activists say.

A group of 18 intellectuals signed a petition Monday saying Wang was innocent and calling him honest, loyal, tolerant, caring, patriotic and responsible.

“No matter what accusation the authorities are trying to impose on Wang Gongquan, everyone in the world knows it’s just political persecution,” they wrote. “If the authorities try to govern the country like this, the country won’t be governed.”

Wang was a member of the New Citizens Movement, a social campaign to promote civil society, the rule of law and limits on the unbridled power of party officials.

Eighteen members of the group, including founder Xu Zhiyong, have been arrested or detained since a handful held up banners in Beijing in March calling for officials to publicly disclose their assets. They are among 50 activists detained in this year’s crackdown, according to Human Rights Watch.

“As his friend, I don’t want Gongquan to make this sacrifice, but on the other hand, it will only make the authorities pay a greater price one day,” said Chen Min, a columnist and fellow activist. “The citizens movement won’t vanish because of this. Instead it will gain a lot of moral strength.”

The first trial of three members of the group was due to begin this month in the southeastern province of Jiangxi but was delayed by legal arguments. Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua face charges of illegal assembly and disturbing public order for unfurling banners calling for other members to be released. The conduct of the trial will be another indication of how ruthless the new government of Xi Jinping is prepared to be in crushing dissent, activists say.

“The crackdown on activists and the New Citizens Movement is a way of redrawing the red lines,” said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “Dissent that may have been tolerated occasionally under the last leadership won’t be tolerated any more.”

In Beijing on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China would only listen to “constructive criticism” raised during the U.N. review, the Associated Press reported.

“Toward the ill-intended and biased criticism, we can only respond that we will maintain our own path, and we will abide by our own judgment,” Hua said.

Zhang Jie contributed to this report.