BEIJING (AP) — The founder of a grassroots movement to boost accountability for Chinese officials went on trial Wednesday on charges of disrupting public order but refused to answer prosecutors during the six-hour, closed-door proceedings to protest what he considers an unjust case, his lawyer said.
The trial of legal scholar and New Citizens founder Xu Zhiyong reflects the determination of the government led by Xi Jinping to quash the loosely knit activists before they can challenge Communist Party rule, even though their goals largely overlap with the party's stated drive to root out corruption and build a fairer society.
The same court later announced it had granted bail to a well-known venture capitalist who supports the New Citizens group, Wang Gongquan, who had been detained since September.
The court did not set a date for Xu's verdict. Xu's lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, said a conviction is almost certain, and that prosecutors suggested five years in prison, the maximum sentence for the crime of gathering crowds to disrupt order in a public place.
Both Xu and his lawyers refused to respond to prosecutors.
"In an unfair trial, when one is defending oneself, appearing in court and answering the questions already amounts to half a confession," Zhang said. "So in this unfair situation, for us not to answer the prosecutors' questions is the most efficient possible defense. It's a kind of protest."
At the end of the trial, Xu began reading a speech intended to act as his defense but was cut off after 10 minutes, Zhang said.
"He wanted to express how a citizen doesn't necessarily oppose the government, but is just somebody who wants to build a better China. But they didn't give him a chance to express this," the lawyer said.
Xu has participated in small public rallies that, among other issues, have called for officials to declare their assets as a way of curbing graft — something party leaders have expressed a willingness to consider but have resisted while pushing a high-profile corruption crackdown.
The proceedings opened the same day that a U.S.-based journalist group released a report linking relatives of Xi and other political leaders to offshore tax havens, renewing allegations that the Communist elite has benefited from China's economic boom and hidden the proceeds overseas.
Wang, the New Citizens group supporter, was given bail after admitting guilt, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court said on its microblog. It said Wang acknowledged that he worked with Xu in planning and inciting the gathering of crowds to disrupt order in public places, and that Wang had expressed deep remorse. It is unusual for a court to grant bail after a confession, and it was unclear whether he would still be put on trial.
Friends and supporters say they believe Wang was coerced into confessing by authorities.
Since April 2013, authorities have detained about 17 people linked to the New Citizens movement, putting three of them on trial in the southeastern province of Jiangxi in late 2013. No verdict has been issued in the Jiangxi trials.
Wednesday's trial of Xu opened a second round of prosecution. At least six other activists are to appear in court in the following days in Beijing, and political and legal observers believe all will be found guilty and jailed for several years.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday called for Xu's immediate release, saying the prosecution is "retribution for his public campaign to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of his views."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a daily briefing Wednesday that Xu's case is being handled in accordance with the law and is "a manifestation of China's rule of law and judicial independence."
The charges against Xu stem from public gatherings at which activists unfurled banners calling for asset disclosures or equality in education.
"If it is a crime to demand a clean government, to ask officials to declare assets, and to demand equality in education, then how can this country have equality and justice?" said Du Guowang, an activist for education equality with no link to the movement. "This government has no confidence, but is fearful."
A conviction of Xu and other activists could motivate more people to take up civic activism, Du said. "People will no longer have any illusion about this government," he said.
Willy Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the New Citizens group drew the attention of authorities partly because the movement had adherents in several provinces.
"The government has no rational reason to arrest them, to prosecute these people," Lam said. "But it is seen as a threat to political stability. It has a cross-provincial network, and that's a big no-no."
A large group of police — in uniform and plainclothes — prevented reporters and Xu's supporters from getting near the courthouse, and were seen hauling people away.
More than a dozen diplomats from the U.S., European Union, Britain, Canada and Australia turned up to attend the trial but were told the courtroom was too small to accommodate them, according to the diplomats.
State media have alleged that the movement aims to overthrow the government. "They want to forcibly change or even subvert China's basic political system," an editorial in the state-run nationalist newspaper Global Times said last month.
Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the suppression of New Citizens has for now chilled the community of activists in China. "I would describe this as a heavy blow on the activist community," she said.
Associated Press video producer Aritz Parra contributed to this report.