The Tianjin No 2 Intermediate People’s Court this week convicted four rights advocates of subverting state power in the first trials to flow from last year’s nationwide crackdown on legal activists. The defendants came from very different backgrounds, ranging from a former classmate of Politburo member and Guangdong Communist Party chief Hu Chunhua to a small-time vendor. HU SHIGEN Hu Shigen, 61, a veteran activist and underground Christian church leader, was jailed for seven years on Wednesday for subversion. He was born into a poor family near Nanchang in Jiangxi. After the Cultural Revolution, Hu studied Chinese language at Peking University alongside Hu Chunhua, would later become a political rising star under former president Hu Jintao. Hu Shigen became a teacher at a language college in Beijing after he graduated and was quickly promoted to vice-departmental chairman. But his quiet life in academia was disrupted by the student-led pro-democracy movement in 1989. Chinese democracy veteran Hu Shigen jailed for subversion Two years after the protests, which ended in bloodshed in Tiananmen Square, Hu founded the Chinese Free Democratic Party, which was later declared by the government to be the biggest “counter-revolutionary ring” since 1989. In the months leading up to the third anniversary of the crackdown, Hu and others planned to distribute fliers in Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan on June 4 to protest against the bloodshed. But the plan was leaked and Hu was arrested as “the principal organiser of a counter-revolutionary ring”. He was jailed for 20 years and released after 16 years. Hu was taken away by the police on his way to a church gathering during last year’s crackdown. “He took all the blame,” brother Hu Shuigen said. “He would rather accept another 20 years in jail than put others in trouble.” ZHOU SHIFENG Zhou Shifeng, 51, set up the Fengrui law firm in Beijing in 2007, some 12 years after he began practising law. The firm was at the centre of last year’s sweeping crackdown on rights activists and lawyers. Not much is known about his personal life and most of his close colleagues were also arrested. Some turned against him after they were released, making accusations about him either online or in publicly broadcast confessions. In 2008, Zhou represented victims in the baby milk powder scandal in which 300,000 children fell ill after consuming melamine-contaminated infant formula. Six died from kidney failure. Under Zhou’s directorship, Fengrui took on many politically sensitive cases involving several outspoken dissidents, including artist Ai Weiwei, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and ethnic Uygur scholar Ilham Tohti. Head of Beijing law firm gets seven years as crackdown on rights activists continues Zhou’s final case involved Zhang Miao, a news assistant for the German weekly Die Zeit , who was detained for nine months after helping the magazine cover the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. Liu Xiaoyuan, Zhou’s former colleague at Fengrui, described Zhou as a “passionate, warm-hearted, generous and upright” person. “He’s very easy-going. When members of disadvantaged groups came to the office for legal advice, he always welcomed them warmly and bought them meals, irrespective of whether they were appointing our firm to represent their cases,” Liu said. ZHAI YANMIN Rights advocate Zhai Yanmin, 55, was not well known before he was given a suspended three-year jail sentence for subversion this week. Wife Liu Ermin said Zhai’s life changed two years ago when he started going to churches and helping petitioners get access to lawyers so they could seek justice. The work took up so much of his time that Zhai often did not have time for his business selling traditional Chinese medicine and medical appliances in Beijing. Chinese rights activist first among those in massive crackdown to get jail term as wife claims she was barred from trial Zhai was taken away by the authorities in June last year and it took Liu six months to find out where he was held. She was barred from attending his court hearing on Tuesday. “I don’t believe a single word of what he said in [the court],” she said, after seeing footage of the trial. “They’re not the words my husband would use. He was the kindest man and has never done anything that his conscience wouldn’t approve of in our 20-something years of marriage.” GOU HONGGUO Businessman Gou Hongguo, 55, would still be living comfortably with his wife and one-year-old son if he had not helped the less privileged in society. But the Christian felt that he could not sit back while others did not have basics such as education, health care and retirement benefits. Gou’s wife, Fan Lili, said her husband had neither political ambitions nor a grudge against the government, but had a natural desire to help others, especially those at “the bottom tier of society”. Rights crackdown: Chinese Christian activist convicted for subversion Fan said Gou was a very responsible person who would stand up for victims of injustice. “The accusations [against Gou] were ridiculous. I respect my husband’s choice and what he did [for the petitioners],” Fan said from her home in Shanxi province.