A Beijing court has upheld a four-year prison term for a prominent Chinese legal activist for supporting anti-corruption protests, the defence lawyer said, drawing criticism and calls for his release from rights groups and the US government.

The prosecutions of Xu Zhiyong and others in his loosely knit New Citizens grassroots movement were part of a clampdown by authorities on any movement that could challenge the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

The Beijing Supreme People's Court on Friday ruled that the lower trial court's verdict in January was correct in finding Xu guilty of gathering crowds to disturb public order and sentencing him to four years in prison.

The communist dictatorship is bound to disperse like haze, and the light of freedom and justice will illuminate the East.

Xu Zhiyong, Chinese legal activist

Xu, 40, said the "absurd judgement cannot halt the tide of human progress," his lawyer told the AFP news agency.

"The communist dictatorship is bound to disperse like haze, and the light of freedom and justice will illuminate the East," Xu said, according to lawyer Zhang Qingfang.

China has put Xu and 10 other members of the movement on trial this year on charges of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order" over the protests in 2013.

Amnesty International, a UK-based global rights group, called the rejection of Xu's appeal "an affront to justice" and called for his release.

Washington said it was "deeply disappointed" over the verdict.

Jen Psaki, the US State Department spokeswoman, described the ruling as a "retribution for his public campaign to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of his views".

Xu's prosecution is part of a deepening pattern of arrests of lawyers, activists, journalists and religious leaders who challenge Chinese policies and actions, Psaki said, calling for their immediate release.

'Under rule of law'

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded that "China is a country under rule of law".

"Everybody is equal before the law. The ruling was handed down by Chinese judicial authorities according to the law," it said in a statement.

Xu, a legal scholar, has insisted that all activism be done within the limits of the law, and he purposely kept the group formless to seek room in China despite the ruling party's intolerance of independent organisations beyond its control.

His fledgling campaign to promote citizen rights drew a clampdown after it inspired people across the country to gather for dinner parties to discuss social issues and occasionally to unfurl banners in public places in small rallies.

Xu's criminal offence largely stemmed from several rallies he organised in front of the Education Ministry to demand equal education rights. The group members argued the rallies did not disrupt any public business nor create any disorder.

Beijing has tried several of the movement's followers on the same charge since late 2013, including Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhang Baocheng and Zhao Changqing this week. Verdicts will be announced later, but guilty verdicts are expected.

Source: AFP