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Chinese anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong set for long-awaited trial

Xu Zhiyong at a meeting in Beijing in July 2009.
Xu Zhiyong at a meeting in Beijing in July 2009.Greg Baker / AP, file

A prominent anti-corruption activist and legal scholar is due to go on trial Wednesday accused of organizing demonstrations essentially demanding the authorities obey their own transparency laws.

Xu Zhiyong, the leader of a moderate reformist group, was arrested in July for organizing small protests calling for government officials to declare their income and assets.

Supporters say his work has exposed shortcomings in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature anti-corruption policy that has reportedly brought down 20,000 crooked officials.

While this government policy has been widely trumpeted by state media, Xu’s arrest is part of a much less talked about crackdown against activists and social media campaigners despite the fact they are very often calling for an end to the same corrupt practices being targeted by President Xi.

Xu’s trial is the first major dissident case since Xi took power and the most anticipated since Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was locked up for "subversion" in Dec. 2008.

In August, Xu managed to record a message on an iPhone smuggled into the prison in which he appealed for democracy. In the minute-long recording he said he would "sacrifice anything" for "freedom, public good and faith."

The 40-year-old is the co-founder of a loose group of like-minded activists called the New Citizens Movement, which seeks to work within the current system to affect change.

He has received surprising support from within the Communist Party and in 2010 was elected to a local Beijing district legislature as an independent.

As well as corruption, he has campaigned on the closure of illegal detention centers and equal education rights for China’s migrant population.

After setting up the New Citizens Movement in 2010, he and other activists hoped the rise of Xi would mean more wiggle room for anti-corruption advocates. But, with Xi intent on tightening his grip amid a slowing economy and other internal pressures, this proved to be a miscalculation.

In total 16 activists have been detained in the anti-activist crackdown, including five from within Xu’s New Citizen Movement.

"While Xi Jinping has spoken a lot about tackling corruption and there have been some high-profile arrests, the government has harshly retaliated against those who exposed high-level corruption in the government and party," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters. 

The vast majority of Chinese trials end in a conviction, and if found guilty Xu could face up to five years in jail.

His lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, was unequivocal about his client's chances. "There will not be a happy verdict, and he will certainly be found guilty," he told Reuters.

Activists say they are planning to support Xu and his fellow detained compatriots from outside the courtroom on Wednesday. Representatives of the European and American embassies have recently attempted to enter Chinese courtrooms to observe controversial trials, though few manage to get in.

NBC News' Ed Flanagan and Ian Williams contributed to this report.