By Christian Shepherd and Natalie Thomas
BEIJING (Reuters) - During Chinese President Xi Jinping's first years in office, rights activists tried to remain buoyant despite shrinking opportunities to organize.
They staged small-scale protests, switched messaging platforms to avoid surveillance, supported the families and friends of those jailed, and pledged to continue their rights work come what may.
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But a move to end presidential term limits, enabling Xi to remain in office indefinitely, may well have slammed the door shut on any hopes for a resurgence of grassroots activism and pressure for democratic political reform.
On Sunday, delegates at the annual meeting of China's largely rubber-stamp parliament are expected to ratify the necessary constitutional amendment to make Xi the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China.
"To say it's a low period sounds too superficial. It will be more like a freeze, where not one inch of grass is born. A barren period, for a very long time," said Zhao Sile, a mainland journalist and activist who is a visiting scholar at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan, where she recently published a book on social movements in China over the past two decades.
A growing space for activism in the early 2000s, fueled by social media and a movement of liberal reformers in the run-up to Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Olympics, was buffeted by intermittent crackdowns from late that year to 2013, when Xi assumed power.
But the Xi era has been marked by what many activists say has been an unremitting squeeze on public dissent, including the government's increasing control and censorship of cyberspace.
China's State Council Information Office, which also speaks for the ruling Communist Party, did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment for this article.
Delegates gathered at the parliamentary meeting in Beijing say scrapping the two-term presidential limit is popular with ordinary Chinese who are happy to have a leader of Xi's caliber.
'MORE POWERFUL THAN MAO'
Rights lawyers, once among the most active and vocal groups of reformers in China, have faced what activist groups call a coordinated campaign of repression under Xi.
As an example, a day after the announcement of term limits being scrapped, central China’s Lengshuijiang city justice bureau warned lawyers and law-firms that a failure to “maintain consistency” with the Communist Party when speaking about the amendments to the constitution online could mean being disbarred, according to a letter circulated online. Reuters was unable to independently verify the document’s authenticity.
A number of rights lawyers have been disbarred by the authorities in recent months for allegedly breaching rules governing their behavior .
Such crackdowns mean that fewer people are prepared to go public with any criticism of Xi.
"Any opposition he faces from his opponents will be far, far smaller than what Mao Zedong faced," said writer and activist Mo Zhixu, who is married to Zhao and is also a visiting scholar at Chung Cheng.
Mo writes on Chinese politics as a member of the non-profit Independent Chinese PEN Center, which since its founding in 2001 has been an intellectual home for critics of China's political system, including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo.
Liu, who was president of the centre from 2003 to 2007, died of cancer last year while in Chinese custody.
In 2008, Liu and others wrote a manifesto known as Charter 08, calling for China's constitution to be rewritten to ensure liberal democracy and to abolish one-party rule.
One activist inside China who is still prepared to go public is Li Datong, a former editor at the state-run China Youth Daily who was fired in 2006 after publishing article that pushed for greater civil liberties. He said news of term limits being abolished sparked outrage and anger in liberal chat groups online.
“It’s not a policy change. It’s a change of China’s political system – of the foundation of that system. To not speak out would be to give tacit consent,” he said.
“But under current government pressure, resistance is like a loose pan of sand. There can be no organized action, and each individual’s ability to protest is limited.”
Many current activists were spawned and inspired by Liu and others closely involved in the protests in Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing in 1989 that called for democracy, a free press and freedom of speech.
In a bloody crackdown that led to an unknown number of deaths - some foreign estimates put the numbers in the thousands - the Chinese authorities sent tanks and troops into the square on June 4, 1989.
But even after Tiananmen there was hope for the activists. China's then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms that set the stage for China's decades of rapid growth that prompted many campaigners to predict that growing prosperity would spur political reform.
Those expectations have been thwarted under Xi.
Hu Jia, a prominent activist who was imprisoned in 2008 for three-and-a-half years for subversion, said Xi has been far more "ruthless" in his suppression of activists than the previous two administrations, but that activists should continue to take a stand - despite the consequences.
Hu says he remains under surveillance and currently has been taken on an enforced "holiday" in southern China by police minders - a regular occurrence for some dissidents made to leave the capital during big political meetings.
"I think that if everyone in China was a coward, if everyone was spineless then we'd still be living in the Qin dynasty," he said, referring to the first dynasty of Imperial China.
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd and Natalie Thomas in Beijing; Fabian Hamacher in Taipei; Editing by Tony Munroe and Martin Howell)