Mainland censors have moved to suppress mention of civil rights advocate Wang Gongquan , who has appeared in photos online looking exhausted after his release from detention.
Wang, a venture capitalist and one of the most prominent participants in the New Citizen movement, was released on bail by a Beijing court on January 22 after being detained for more than four months on charges of disturbing the public order.
The group's founder, Xu Zhiyong, was sentenced by the Beijing No 1 Intermediate People's Court to four years in prison last week on identical charges. Wang and Xu have both publicly called for government transparency, respect for the constitution and equality in education in recent years. According to a court microblog, Wang confessed he had erred in aiding Xu's social campaigns.
A photo shared by 52-year-old Wang last week via an anonymous microblog account showed him looking tired. It was shared hundreds of times before it was deleted by censors.
Up until his detention, Wang had been a prominent commentator on social issues with more than 1.5 million followers on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo.
But he has returned to a different climate for public debate, as usage of the platform has declined rapidly since his detention in September last year.
The number of weibo users on the mainland fell by 9 per cent last year to 281 million, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre, after a crackdown silenced renowned commentators like Wang and internet users turned to messaging service WeChat.
Last Thursday Wang posted a separate photo of himself revisiting the detention facility he was held at, before his new weibo account was deleted.
Then on Sunday, Pan Shiyi , the billionaire co-founder of real estate developer Soho China, shared a photo of himself with his long-time friend Wang on his weibo account. Along with the photo, he wrote: "Thirty years have passed, now everyone is going their own way."
Pan has 16 million followers on Sina Weibo. His post was re-shared by Ren Zhiqiang , another Chinese real estate developer who has a massive weibo following of 18 million followers.
Liu Xiaoyuan , one of China's most outspoken activist lawyers, reacted with muted scorn to Pan's post. "If you dared to speak out for Xu, then you would be real heroes."
Pan's post has since been deleted.
Xu's lawyer said his client would appeal against the sentence. Zhang Qingfang said he did not expect it to succeed but it might prolong the cases of other activists being tried in a lower court.