In China's latest show trial, a Beijing court on Sunday sentenced New Citizens Movement leader Xu Zhiyong to four years in prison for "disturbing public order" via peaceful protests over official corruption and public access to education. His real crime was to be a brave, patriotic and measured critic of the Chinese government's abuses and hypocrisies—as demonstrated again in the closing statement he tried to read at trial last week.

Addressing the judge and prosecutors—who barred members of the press or public from attending the one-day proceeding— Mr. Xu said that his ordeal "is actually an issue of fears you all carry within: fear of a public trial, fear of a citizen's freedom to observe a trial, fear of my name appearing online, and fear of the free society nearly upon us."

"What the New Citizens Movement advocates," he said, "is for each and every Chinese national to act and behave as a citizen, to accept our roles as citizens and masters of our country—and not to act as feudal subjects, remain complacent, accept mob rule or a position as an underclass. To take seriously the rights which come with citizenship, those written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and China's Constitution: to treat these sacred rights—to vote, to freedom of speech and religion—as more than an everlasting IOU."

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Editorial page editor Paul Gigot on the show trial of constitutional rights advocate Xu Zhiyong and other arrests. Photo credit: Getty Images.

According to Mr. Xu's lawyer, the judge silenced the 40-year-old activist after 10 minutes, calling his words "irrelevant." But the lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, was able to circulate Mr. Xu's prepared text to journalists before being detained on Sunday himself.

"Our mission is not to gain power but to restrict power," Mr. Xu planned to tell the court. One of his movement's priorities was pushing Chinese leaders to disclose their financial assets to the public. "More than 137 countries and territories around the world currently have systems in place for officials to declare assets, so why can't China?" his statement asks. "What exactly is it these 'public servants' fear so much?" On the very day of his trial, the U.S.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released a report detailing offshore bank accounts held by relatives of Chinese President Xi Jinping, former Premier Wen Jiabao, former Party supremo Deng Xiaoping and dozens of others.

At trial Mr. Xu also planned to tell his persecutors that "under true democracy and rule of law," China would have free and fair multiparty elections, an independent judiciary, a military that answers to the people (not to one political party), free speech and freedom of belief. "These modern democratic values and measurements are rooted in common humanity. They should not be Eastern or Western, socialist or capitalist, but universal to all human societies."

Facing trial two days after the birth of his first child, Mr. Xu stated: "Some people have to make sacrifices, and I for one am willing to pay any and all price for my belief in freedom, justice, love, and for a better future of China." Such is the heroic thinking of China's dissidents—figures like Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, detained Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti and longtime activist Hu Jia, who was summoned again by Beijing police on Sunday afternoon. Their names should be on the lips of diplomats and citizens worldwide.