The imprisonment of legal scholar Xu Zhiyong has cast doubt on Beijing’s pledge to enforce the rule of law, a UK expert said this week.

Ernest Caldwell, lecturer in Chinese Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said that the rule of law in China ‘is in a precarious situation right now’ despite the new leadership’s promises.

Last year the Chinese government published plans to ‘separate the jurisdiction of courts from administrative divisions’, in a move aimed at reducing corruption and improving the climate for foreign investment.

However Xu, an advocate for a grassroots transparency movement campaigning for government officials to reveal their wealth, was sentenced to four years in prison for ‘gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place’. The trial and sentence attracted international condemnation.

Caldwell said that the current Chinese leadership had come to power on a platform of rule of law and anti-corruption. However Xu’s sentence shows a ‘shift in party mentality’.

While the country’s leaders view the fight against corruption as taking place at national level, ‘they don’t want it happening at the grassroots’.

Xu had previously called to ‘establish a free China that is completely democratic and ruled by law’. However, Caldwell said that ‘rule by law, corruption-finding and prosecuting are seen as the domain of the state and as a tool rather than something intended to reform the government’.

The Law Society described Xu’s trial as ‘a prime example of how lawyers are being tried on charges that have arisen out of their work on politically sensitive cases’.

Frances Swaine, managing partner at human rights firm Leigh Day, said: ‘The health of any society can be gauged by the right of the individual to speak truth to power and a judiciary that would protect these rights. Therefore the conviction of Xu Zhiyong can only lead to the assumption that [China] still suffers from a chronic tendency to human rights abuses.’