For all the hype surrounding the Beijing Olympics - and how hosting them might prompt changes in China - the jailing last week of human rights defender Hu Jia is a grim reminder that the mainland is far from becoming open, free and tolerant.
Hu, 35, was found to have incited others to 'subvert the state's political power and socialist system' by publishing articles on overseas-run websites and through interviews he gave to foreign media from August 2006 to October last year. He was jailed for 31/2 years.
The Beijing First Intermediate People's Court said in its verdict that Hu had spread malicious rumours and committed libel to subvert the nation - in Web articles entitled 'China political law-enforcement organs create large-scale horror ahead of Communist Party of China's National Congress' and 'One country doesn't need two systems'. Li Fangping , Hu's lawyer, said outside court: 'There is a major disagreement between prosecutors and the defence over punishing someone for peaceful speech.'
Mr Li is not alone in feeling frustrated and bewildered by the authorities' interpretation of what constitutes freedom of speech and subversion.
Judging from Hu's articles and interviews, he was merely exercising the right to freedom of expression to which citizens are entitled under the constitution. What he said may have sounded critical and embarrassing to the ruling party. But to people in a free society like Hong Kong, branding criticism subversive shows, at best, a lack of imagination.
Hu is known for his environmental activism - he has spoken out against deforestation and campaigned for the protection of endangered species - and as an advocate for Aids patients. He has also helped peasants who staged protests after they were unlawfully deprived of their rights and property.
In his articles he criticised the Communist Party's human rights record, and its failure to honour a pledge to improve that record ahead of the Games.
President Hu Jintao's stated goal is to foster a 'harmonious society'. Beijing hopes to use its hosting of the Games to showcase to the world China's peaceful rise. Yet Hu's case is likely to cause more friction between the government and its people and between China and the west.
Rather than taking a softer line with such defenders of human rights, the authorities appear to prefer playing hardball to frighten critics into silence ahead of the Games.
With the situation in Tibetan-populated regions still unsettled and international pressure growing for world leaders to boycott Games events, Beijing decided to take a stand in the case of Hu to convey the message that it will stick to the letter of mainland law and legal procedure rather than bow to external pressure.
The leadership has a deep-seated and obsessive fear of the activities of what it deems hostile foreign forces, yet it must have weighed the risks involved when bidding for the right to host the Games in the Chinese capital.
The outbreak of riots in Lhasa last month will only deepen concern in Beijing that politics will entangle the Games. However, despite the Tibetan unrest and the jailing of Hu, there is little to suggest there will be a large-scale boycott of the Games' opening ceremony or a sporting boycott. That is because the world believes strongly that the Olympics will be a catalyst for positive long-term change on the mainland.
That being said, the world will be watching closely. If the crackdown on political activism gets nasty, western governments will face growing pressure for action, or at least symbolic gestures, to show their disapproval.
The outcry last week over Hu's conviction and imprisonment, and lingering tension over Tibet , should prompt an urgent rethink by Beijing. It needs to take a softer approach and show a more liberal attitude in order to resolve controversies before they precipitate a crisis.