A few notes on the cases of Chen Guangchen and Zhao Yan.
First of all, I don’t think that this marks the start of a “crackdown” against rights defenders. Chen Guangchen and Zhao Yan’s cases have been pending for some time, and this does mark an effort to get those cases resolved in some way. What will be significant is to see how much jail time Chen and Zhao actually serve, and its been a pattern for the Chinese government to convict someone of a crime, and then find some excuse to release them early.
Second there is a silver lining on all of this. Even with the deck stacked against the defendants, the prosecutors couldn’t get them on “state crimes” (i.e. subverting public order, undermining national security, and releasing state secrets). In both cases, they had to get some sort of bogus public order charge. This is significant in two ways. First the penalties for the public order crimes (i.e. blocking traffic) are a lot less, and we are looking at three to four years rather than a life sentence. Second, this sets the boundaries of “state crimes” for other actions. If they couldn’t get Chen and Zhao on “subverting public order” then it is highly unlikely that they will be able to get anyone else for doing stuff like reading wikipedia or circumventing the Great Firewall.
Just one note. I’ve gotten in trouble in the past for showing insufficient moral outrage when stuff like this happens. There’s a reason I don’t show too much moral outrage, and that this is going to be a very, very long fight (i.e. decades). If you constantly get emotional over each headline, and don’t look for small victories, then you aren’t going to have the energy to sustain this fight over a very long period of time.