The jailing of Xu Zhiyong and the rule of law in China.

Anyone with more than five minutes' dealings with modern China knows the country's leaders do not take kindly to being lectured on human rights by the descendents of opium war-mongers.

How, then, to respond to the prison sentence imposed on legal scholar and activist Xu Zhiyong? 

Crass as it may sound, we could look on the bright side. By today's standards, four years in jail for upholding constitutional rights is horrific, not least for the presumably intended chilling effect on further dissent. However on the great scale of oppression in China over the past 65 years it looks positively lenient.

In evidence, I commend a new history The Tragedy of Liberation, by Hong Kong-based Dutch academic Frank Dikötter (Bloomsbury 2013). The book is a prequel to Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine which, four years ago, set out in harrowing documented detail the consequences of the 1958 'Great Leap Forward', which killed about 45 million people over four years. 

In his new book Dikötter demonstrates that the Great Leap and the 1966 Cultural Revolution (perhaps 3 million dead) were not departures from an initial golden age following Mao Zedong's 1949 victory but that mass killings and the systematic crushing of real and imagined dissent were part of the Chinese Communist Party's system from the beginning. As early as 1950 Mao handed down a killing quota of one per thousand citizens, though, according to Dikötter 'in many parts of the country two or three times as many people were executed, often on the flimsiest of pretexts'.

The history lesson is useful for two reasons.

First, it should remove any remaining delusions about Mao's record, which still gets a remarkably gentle ride among Britons of a certain age. In his diaries Tony Benn recalls enthusing about Mao's land reforms to an evidently startled Chinese ambassador. But a lot of us shared tinted spectacles - in the 1980s I was charmed by a tour of collective farms in Guangdong, contrasting them with the hedonism and materialism just over the border in Hong Kong. Of course I knew which side I would want to live, but with unconscious racism assumed that Asians should be content with their lot.

Secondly, Dikötter's work reminds us of the correlation between property rights and political rights. In the 1950s the expropriation of private property and the persecution of the 'landlord class' went hand in hand with removal of the rule of law. Now the pendulum is swinging back to the more transparent upholding of property rights, more civil rights will inevitably follow.

However much the country's rulers may wish it otherwise.

Recent encouraging signs include last year's proposal to separate the judicial from the administrative system, the relaxing of controls on reporting of environmental data and even this week's first official top-level talks with Taiwan, the first since 1949. 

Of course we should not be complacent. Events that could trigger a wholesale return to mass killings range from ecological catastrophe to insurrection (a constant theme of Chinese history) to nuclear war in Korea. 

But in the meantime, though this will not be much immediate help to Xu Zhiyong, history is moving in the right direction. When Chinese officials state their commitment to the rule of commercial law we can use the resulting channel of communication not to hector but to point out that it must respect challenges from the grass roots as well as from the party leadership.

Does anyone have any better ideas?

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor