By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Three Chinese anti-graft activists who agitated for officials to disclose their assets went on trial on Monday in the first case of its kind, underscoring the limits of government tolerance of challenges to its authority.
Despite an official drive against corruption, China has detained at least 15 activists in recent months who were involved in a campaign pushing for officials to disclose their wealth.
Rights groups describe the detentions as the first major crackdown against activists by the new government. The trial of Liu Ping, Li Sihua and Wei Zhongping is the first prosecution of anti-graft activists.
The three were detained in late April in Xinyu, in the poor, landlocked southern province of Jiangxi, and accused of illegal assembly. They face a maximum of five years in prison if convicted.
Officials in Xinyu could not be reached for comment.
Zhang Xuezhong, one of two lawyers defending Liu, said police had tried to prevent the legal defense teams from entering the court in the morning, though the court intervened and they were eventually allowed in.
"All three are pleading not guilty," Zhang told Reuters by telephone from outside the court, adding he was not optimistic about the case given its sensitivity.
The three are involved in the New Citizens Movement, which advocates working within the system to press for change. Its founder, the prominent activist Xu Zhiyong, was arrested in August.
Wang Cheng, a lawyer friend of the three who is not directly involved in the case, said he believed the government was trying to send a message that it would not tolerate the activities of rights groups.
"They're using this case to warn others, to bring these activities under control," Wang said. "It shows how nervous they are."
"CANARIES IN THE COAL MINE"
The ascendancy of Xi Jinping as Communist Party chief in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition last November had given many Chinese hope for political reform, spurring citizens to push officials to disclose their wealth in several movements throughout the country.
But the charges against the activists are a strong indication that the Communist Party will not tolerate any open challenge to its rule under Xi, even as it claims more transparency.
Xi, who became president in March, has called for a crackdown on graft, warning, as many have before him, that the problem is so severe it could threaten the party's survival.
Encouraged by Xi's calls for more transparency, the activists took photographs of themselves holding banners and placards that said: "Strongly urge officials to disclose their assets" and "Xi Jinping, immediately end dictatorship".
The pictures were widely circulated online.
"Liu, Wei, and Li are canaries in the coal mine for how the government intends to treat this influential group of anti-corruption activists," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
"Anything short of acquittal will seriously undermine the credibility of the government's claims to be cracking down on corruption."
There have been a few pilot schemes for low-level officials in China's southern Guangdong province to disclose their assets, but the efforts have made little progress and discussion of the wealth of senior leaders such as Xi remains firmly off limits.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in BEIJING and John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI; Editing by Robert Birsel)