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By silencing activists like Tan Zuoren, China shows who's in control. Right?

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Vincent Yu/AP

(Read caption) Protesters raise a picture of Chinese activist Tan Zuoren during a protest outside the Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong Wednesday. Mr. Tan, who had collected sensitive information about a major 2008 earthquake, earned five years in jail.

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In China, “state power” is a nebulous concept, but a central one. And on Wednesday we got a reminder of just how easy it is – in the government’s eyes – to undermine it.

All Tan Zuoren did was to organize an online campaign to try to draw up a list of the children who died when schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

That was enough to earn the activist five years in jail for “inciting subversion of state power.” On Wednesday, a Sichuan provincial court upheld the sentence, which Mr. Tan had appealed in February.

Sometimes, “state power” in China seems massive, monolithic, and impregnable. The ruling Communist Party, to all intents and purposes, is the state; its rule is unquestionable, and it controls all three branches of government (and most of the fourth estate).

And then, sometimes, “state power” seems all too fragile, the men who wield it nervous that the slightest crack in the edifice will bring it tumbling down.

How else to explain why a list of children’s names could be subversive, except that the list – and its length – might make citizens wonder about the quality of school construction and the possibility that local officials did not do their jobs properly? And that such doubts would constitute a threat to the party’s legitimacy and thus to “state power”?

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