For most of the past five months, Hu Jia has sat inside his Beijing home and waited. One day, he is certain, a knock will come and he will once again find himself in jail, or some other place where he can be kept silent.
That day may be soon. At least five prominent government critics have already been been detained by Chinese authorities in the weeks leading up to June 4, the 25th anniversary of the day when Chinese soldiers and tanks were ordered to open fire on their own people around Tiananmen Square.
More arrests will almost certainly come as China seeks to mute the memories of the students who died then, and the loss of faith in the Communist Party that ensued. On Tuesday, activists reported the disappearance of three journalists, amid a crackdown on the memory of Tiananmen's dead that the activists say is the worst in at least a decade.
Mr. Hu has himself been living with constant reminders of his vulnerability – he has already spent 3 1/2 years in jail. He joined the 1989 student protests as a 15-year-old and is now often called China's leading activist. Since Jan. 17, with a few exceptions for holidays, he has been under house arrest – a condition he has been told will last until June 8.
On any given day, one or two minders sit in his staircase. Sometimes another four play cards in the yard of his compound. More sit in cars parked nearby.
"Normally it's six to seven people," he said.
The situation for critics, or perceived critics, has grown especially precarious in recent weeks. After a meeting to commemorate the killings on June 4, 1989 – in which hundreds, if not more than 1,000, died – several prominent professors, a film critic and one of China's most famous lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, were detained. Gao Yu, a well-known journalist and activist, has also been taken away.
"This year is the one they are most nervous about since 2004," Mr. Hu said. That was the year he brought flowers to Tiananmen Square, an act that earned him a permanent target on his head.
He knows the risk of being taken away from his house and placed behind bars is real. "I'm ready at any minute," he said. Chinese security forces have drafted several lists of what are effectively top ideological enemies of the state – some with 200, others with 137. On at least one of those lists, Mr. Hu, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, is named at the top.
He has been warned he could face charges of subverting state power, in part related to his calls for Chinese people to wear black on June 4 as a sign of remembrance. He repeated that call in an interview with The Globe and Mail this week.
The anniversary is a day of "pain" in China's history, but one that remains "sealed in ice under the Communist Party's iron curtain." The only way to fight back, he said, is to remember – even if, 25 years later, that very act is enough to elicit official threats of 12 years in prison.
In recent months, an outbreak of terrorism – with several attacks on train stations – has put Chinese authorities on edge. (This week, 150 tank-like armoured personnel vehicles began patrolling Beijing.) But Mr. Hu also attributes the crackdown to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is "taking harsh measures of deterrence for maintaining stability."
The meeting attended by Mr. Pu, the detained lawyer, would have been "okay to hold five years ago," Mr. Hu said. He accused Mr. Xi of "taking over the genes of 'Slaughter Deng,'" a reference to Deng Xiaoping, the leader who authorized deadly force in 1989. There is a saying among activists: "June Fourth is a block of iron. Whoever dares hit it will bleed."
There had, in recent years, been signs of hope that China was loosening its hold on discussion of the Tiananmen killings. Near the 2012 anniversary, protesters in three cities even managed to hang put up Tiananmen-related banners and chanted "down with dictatorship" slogansto "vent our anger against the autocratic regime," as one protester put it. They were allowed to vent publicly, unmolested by security forces.
It seems doubtful they would meet a similarly velvet-gloved hand today.
"There's no up-side for the government here to allow especially outspoken critics to remain at large in a very sensitive season," said Russell Leigh Moses, dean of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. "Xi and his allies have made it very clear that they will make politics from the top down." That leaves little room for critical conversation, which has become increasingly difficult to air in China.
In late 2008, more than 300 lawyers, activists and journalists signed Charter 8, a manifesto calling for independent courts and the end of one-party rule. Producing such a document in China today would lead to more serious punishment, said He Weifang, a law professor who is one of its signatories.
Activists say the censorship and detentions are only deepening dissatisfaction among Chinese, and hardening their resolve for change.
Rose Tang, who was also part of the 1989 protests and now lives in New York, said she has been struck, in recent months, by the number of mainland Chinese skirting Internet controls to join Twitter, and by the stridency of their rhetoric. Direct attacks on the Communist Party – labelling it "the biggest terrorist organization" and "the biggest mafia gang" – have been joined by calls for violent protest. Her own pleas for non-violence have prompted angry replies.
"This determination to overthrow the Communist Party, this is very new," she said. "There's such a momentum of revolution."