Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong hold pictures of Wu Gan, who calls himself the ‘super vulgar butcher’. A Chinese court sentenced him for eight years. The placard reads: '[Defending human] rights is not a crime; free Wu Gan immediately' © AP
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The day after Christmas Day, a Chinese court sentenced a man known as the “super vulgar butcher” to eight years in prison for his history of non-violent activism and performance art.

The practice of arresting or sentencing human rights activists to lengthy prison terms over the Christmas break when pesky western journalists and the public are on holiday has become something of an annual ritual in China. But Wu Gan, also known as “the butcher”, stands out for the severity of his punishment and for his dogged defiance in the face of persecution and alleged torture.

His was the first in a wave of hundreds of arrests or forced disappearances of activists and human rights lawyers that began in mid-2015 and marked a relentless expansion of the definition of “subversion” in China. His sentence is the harshest of the dozen or so that eventually came to trial.

On the same day the butcher was sentenced, Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer caught up in the crackdown, was effectively let off with a warning after he confessed on television to inciting subversion and recanted his earlier account of torture at the hands of the security services. In contrast, Wu claims to have refused a similar deal offered by the authorities, instead issuing rebellious statements through his lawyers before and after his one-day trial in August.

The concept of “leniency for those who confess, severity for those who resist” is the oldest and most important tenet of Chinese criminal justice. The butcher knew that but decided to resist anyway.

I was the first foreign reporter to interview Wu when he first came to prominence as an activist nearly a decade ago. In early 2010, I spent several days travellingwith him in southern China as he investigated and publicised cases of powerless individuals battling corrupt and predatory local authorities across the country.

I wanted to understand what makes someone become a dissident, how the authoritarian Communist party reacted to such people and, ultimately, how much of a problem people such as the butcher really are for an up-and-coming superpower like China. My conclusion then was that people like him posed almost no threat. Now I am not so sure.

With his bald pate, burly frame and goatee, Wu cut an imposing figure but he was warm, funny and committed to his work. He was also basically a loser by most traditional measures — a nearly 40-year-old unemployed former security guard whose girlfriend had left him.

He seemed to be searching for something that would make him special. He idolised the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and clearly wanted to emulate him, despite a lack of artistic training or talent.

Like most other Chinese activists, Wu was careful to focus his protests and online criticism on the misdeeds of local officials rather than the wider system and to an extent it seemed as if that system valued his actions for exposing poor governance at the lower levels.

While his language was colourful — he liked to talk figuratively about “slaughtering the [corrupt official] pigs” — and his protests often noisy and profane, he was extremely careful not to break any laws and strictly adhered to the principle of non-violence.

He claimed to enjoy secret support from senior party officials who believed the country needed more civic action from concerned citizens to make up for the absence of democracy. From his indictment it is clear that such ideas are now completely out of favour in China.

Predictably, the party accused the butcher of being “influenced by the infiltration of anti-China forces” and “accepting interviews by foreign media” is listed as evidence for his crime of subversion.

I cannot help but feel the party has given Mr Wu the thing he most wanted. It has created a brave martyr when he might have been easily ignored or even co-opted.

Most revolutionaries in history — Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro — were considered fringe losers until their enemies began to take them seriously and persecute them. Mr Wu’s sentence makes the party look weak and scared of shadows; it has legitimised him and his work in a way nothing else could have. As he begins his eight years in prison, the butcher has realised his ambition and been given the stage to be taken seriously.

As he says: “In fighting for democracy and freedom in defence of civil rights, a guilty verdict issued by a dictatorial regime is a golden glittering trophy awarded to warriors for liberty and democracy.”

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