For much of his adult life, Wu Lihong campaigned to clean up his befouled local lake. That cause appeared to get a boost in May when the sorry state of Lake Taihu, the third-largest in China, elicited national outrage after a carpet of algae scum on the lake made tap water undrinkable for millions of households.
Mr. Wu's efforts came at a price. Last Friday in a courtroom in Yixing he was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud and extortion. His wife says he was tortured in detention and calls the verdict an act of vengeance by embarrassed local officials.
Becoming a political or social activist has long been a solitary, sometimes dangerous path in China. The treatment of Wu and other whistle-blowers who expose cases of environmental or public-health failings illuminate the Chinese political system's deep aversion to bearers of bad news.
And its tolerance for dissenting voices appears to be waning. China's leaders are gearing up for a crucial twice-a-decade party congress due to be held in October, when factions jostle for power and leaders talk up their achievements.
Amid rising concern over corruption, national leaders have asked citizens to report any misbehavior by members of the ruling Communist Party. In 2002, President Hu Jintao told a party committee that such a reporting system would strengthen the party. "The masses should play a role in supervising party officials," he said.
As Wu discovered, though, some local officials don't take kindly to such civic spirit. Nor is it clear that Beijing is ready to loosen its grip on free expression so that social activists and whistle-blowers can shine light into China's dark corners, analysts say.
"The Communist Party and central government really need people to step up and tell them where things are going wrong. They need an active population that acts like the country's welfare is important to them," says Russell Moses, a political analyst in Beijing. "But they don't give the sort of legal and political protection that these people are entitled to for speaking up."
The result is an opaque system that leaves whistle-blowers to twist in the wind. Even drawing attention to causes that the leadership itself champions, such as curbing the pollution of waterways, can be risky if it presents the party in a bad light, say human rights monitors.
"China limits itself in respect to the environmental crisis precisely because of its restrictions on press reporting and [nongovernmental organizations]," says Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch. "It deprives itself of the time-tested, most effective way of addressing these issues."
Even the Western legal system, which traditionally offers varying degrees of protection to whistle-blowers, still elicits mixed reactions when applied in practice. But China's top-down political culture is far less forgiving of such betrayals, and a culture of secrecy and silence prevails in the bureaucracy and workplace, say analysts.
Jiang Yanyong is one example. Acclaimed by foreign media as a courageous whistle-blower for exposing a cover-up of China's 2003 SARS outbreak, Mr. Jiang, a retired army doctor, got a much cooler reception at home. He was denied permission last month to travel to the US to receive a human rights award from the New York Academy of Sciences.
"Historically, Chinese rulers have contradictory ideas on this. On one hand, the central government needs people to identify problems so they can be solved. On the other, the government is afraid that these whistle-blowers can bring down the system," says Li Datong, a pro-reform writer and former magazine editor.
Wu won a measure of acclaim for his environmental activism, which began in the early 1990s when chemical factories began pouring effluent into Lake Taihu, a once-scenic spot 90 miles west of Shanghai. In 2005 he was named among China's top 10 environmentalists and feted at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
But as his campaign made waves nationally, local officials and investors in the fast-industrializing towns around the lake closed ranks against him. He lost his job as a salesman and faced beatings from police and hired thugs. In April, he was arrested in Yixing, his hometown, as he was preparing to travel to Beijing to lobby authorities there.
His wife, Xu Jiehua, says his trial was a farce. Police said Wu extorted some $7,200 from businesses by threatening to report them for environmental crimes. Yet Wu's wife said no witnesses were called to testify, and police statements went unchallenged. Wu's claims that he was tortured during five straight days of interrogation were rejected. The court also refused to hear evidence that the factory owner paid Wu a commission for selling a wastewater treatment system.
Wu's lawyer said that he would definitely appeal the case. "The trial is very unfair … I'm angry and sad," said Ms. Xu, Wu's wife.
The algae infestation of Lake Taihu has subsided after the government removed algae, closed some factories, and diverted water from the Yangtze River to flush out the waterway, Reuters reported Friday. The algae thrived on the high level of nutrients in the lake pumped in by factories, households, and agricultural runoffs.
Xu said that her husband's campaign was successful because it forced local authorities to take action. Analysts point out that various government agencies have intervened in the past to curb pollution in Lake Taihu but have met stiff opposition from local officials who have vested interests in keeping the factories running to generate jobs and income.
As part of a broader effort to devolve central power, party leaders have encouraged local officials to collect taxes and implement policies that stimulate growth. This approach, however, restricts the ability of central authorities to intervene in local affairs, except in a crisis, to the frustration of activists whose complaints go unheard. This tension between local interests and central authorities is part and parcel of China's breakneck pace of development, say analysts.
"The local government has financial powers and a heavy hand in the judiciary," says Pan Wei, a politics professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University. "China is a de facto federal system."