In October, a man unfurled banners from a Beijing bridge calling for people to rise up against China’s restrictive covid policies and the Communist Party itself. He was alone that day and quickly arrested; the nationwide protests he hoped for did not materialize. But now they have. And they started because of a fire in an apartment building.
When word spread of the fire, the 10 fatalities and reports that rescue efforts may have been slowed by a covid lockdown, the apartment building tragedy turned into a national rallying cry.
It happened this past Thursday in Urumqi, in western China’s Xinjiang region. By the weekend, protests had spread from Urumqi to Shanghai, Nanjing and many other large cities — including Wuhan, where the world’s first major outbreak of covid-19 struck three years ago. The anger was expressed on Chinese social media platforms as well. At first, the protests appeared to take direct aim at the government’s “zero-covid” approach, under which even small outbreaks are met with severe measures — often including the confining of millions of people to their homes. “Lift the lockdown” was among the rallying cries. But in some instances, demonstrators went further — calling for broader freedoms and even an end to Communist Party rule.
In a country where public opposition to the central government and its policies is rare and swiftly punished, the weekend’s marches and gatherings amounted to the most powerful challenge to the party in years.
“It’s extremely significant,” said Teresa Wright, a political scientist at California State University, Long Beach, who studies protests in China. Other demonstrations against China’s zero-covid policy have simmered throughout the year, but the Urumqi fire has sparked a reaction that makes the earlier unrest seem minor by comparison. That in turn has prompted Wright and other scholars to draw comparisons between the demonstrations and those that filled Beijing’s Tiananmen Square more than three decades ago.
Is China heading toward another Tiananmen moment? It’s a question that would have seemed almost absurd to ask only one week ago.
From mourning to anger
The nationwide outburst was born in an unlikely place. Urumqi is the regional capital of Xinjiang, whose Uyghur population has faced widespread repression in recent years. The Associated Press reported that at least five of the 10 people who died in the fire were Uyghurs. The suffering of the Uyghur people doesn’t usually garner widespread attention among China’s majority Han population, but the deadly fire struck a chord for people across the country. Call it lockdown sympathy.
Urumqi had been under lockdown for more than 100 days, and social media commentators blamed locked building exits for the deaths in the apartment building. In many cases across China, the lockdowns have been literal; people have been locked in their buildings by local government workers, sometimes using bulky chains. Grid and other outlets haven’t been able to confirm that locked exits prevented the Urumqi residents from escaping, and the local government denied that the doors were locked, but in terms of the outrage, the facts may not have mattered; the fire stirred broader anger toward lockdowns in Urumqi and other cities across China. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, breaking news posts about the fire received more than 1.5 billion views, even though the story was hidden from the site’s trending topics list.
By Friday night, a crowd of hundreds had gathered outside a government building in Urumqi calling out “jie feng,” or “lift the lockdown,” according to videos from the scene. It would have been unusual anywhere in China; it was especially rare in a region that is so tightly controlled and policed.
By the following day, the protests had spread across China. On the other side of the country in Shanghai, a street sign for Urumqi Road, named for the Xinjiang capital, became a gathering point for grief and anger. People honored the victims of the fire by placing candles and flowers near the sign. But what started as a vigil morphed quickly into a full-scale protest, drawing hundreds of people. The city’s residents are intimately familiar with the nightmares of zero-covid measures, having endured their own two-month-long lockdown last spring. Those two months threw the city into chaos — food delivery networks broke down, healthcare services were compromised, and smaller-scale protests followed, on and offline.
But this weekend’s scenes along Urumqi Road were different. Some messages were subtle: People held up white sheets of paper, a symbol used during the 2019 Hong Kong protests to show solidarity while also protesting censorship itself. Some wore masks with “404″ written on them — the all-too-familiar error message people get when a webpage has been blocked. Other demonstrators were more direct: People chanted “We want freedom,” and one protester called for President Xi Jinping to step down — a truly rare challenge in China and one that was echoed by some in the crowd, according to the New York Times.
By Sunday, the protests had spread to Beijing. Hundreds of people gathered by the Liangma River — a quarter of the city that is home to many embassies. The same white sheets of paper were held high, and chants for freedom rang through the night. Throughout China, other major cities joined the call — including Chengdu, Tianjin, Hangzhou and others.
The messages were echoed on university campuses. In Xi’an, Nanjing and at Beijing’s famed universities — Tsinghua and Peking — crowds of students gathered for vigils-turned-protests. College campuses have long been breeding grounds for dissent in China, and this weekend some students’ calls extended far beyond covid lockdowns to demands for greater democracy and freedom of expression.
There have been other covid-related tragedies in China — including a bus crash that killed 27 people who were being shipped to a quarantine facility in September. What was it about the Urumqi fire that sparked such a sudden and widespread movement?
Wright said the timing might have something to do with it. Many people in China had hoped that the party congress, held in October, would lead to a pivot away from the zero-covid restrictions. “Expectations were increased and then crushed,” she said. “Then you’ve got this fire in Urumqi being the tipping point.”
A Tiananmen moment?
Protests in today’s China aren’t unusual in themselves, as Grid recently reported; people take to the streets over local issues such as factory conditions and property issues frequently. They vent their anger on social media platforms, with varying degrees of success in evading government censors.
But the current protests are in a league of their own. Or perhaps, Wright argued, in a league with the handful of other major social movements that have challenged the party in recent decades — none more so than the 1989 protests at Tiananmen.
Like Tiananmen, the current protests have an ingredient that poses a particular challenge to the party: They have brought together a broad coalition of people across Chinese society.
“I would say one commonality between ’89 and the present is the fundamental frustration with perceived governmental corruption and authorities not being responsive to or attentive to the needs of the people,” Wright said. “So that’s something that can bring together people of different socioeconomic status and backgrounds, even if their specific concerns are somewhat different.”
Today, the protesters’ common cause involves the easing or ending of the restrictive covid policies — even if they have different messages under that umbrella. Many students are calling for expansive rights — freedom and democracy — while migrant workers are demanding the basic right to work to feed their families. As Grid has previously reported, the lockdowns have hit China’s poorest citizens the hardest; migrants who live paycheck to paycheck have no safety net when they cannot go out to find work. In recent weeks, those workers have stood up against the lockdowns — in Zhengzhou at the giant Foxconn factory where iPhones are produced, and in Guangzhou where migrant workers pushed over lockdown barriers to protest a recent shutdown.
“There is one word that describes the significance of these protests: heterogeneity,” said Christian Goebel, a professor of China studies at University of Vienna who studies dissent, describing the mosaic of Chinese people who’ve been drawn to the streets.
But in some ways, the current protests aren’t nearly as powerful as the Tiananmen movement. At least not yet. The protests in 1989 built over many weeks, hundreds of thousands of people gathering at a single, central venue, until their bloody end. On June 4, the government ordered troops to fire on the protesters, killing hundreds — perhaps thousands.
It’s too early to know whether the current protesters will continue to demonstrate in the days and weeks ahead, and whether demonstrations will be tolerated. So far, the protests have largely been allowed to continue; while videos have shown police picking off individuals for arrest, there has not yet been a mass crackdown. One of the few official responses to date: On Monday, an official refuted the notion of a connection between the Urumqi fire and virus restrictions. “On social media there are forces with ulterior motives that relate this fire with the local response to Covid-19,” said Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman.
It’s also too early to say whether the main target of the current protests will move beyond ending zero-covid. The Tiananmen protests developed into a movement for democracy — the most direct and powerful challenge the party has ever experienced. In today’s protests, while there have been those occasional calls for Xi and the party to step down, many have focused their slogans and chants on simply ending the lockdowns.
Wherever the latest protest movement leads in the coming days and weeks, Xi and the leadership face a stark choice: They can stay the course, pulling out all the stops to beat back the virus, and avoid the awkward about-face of changing their message, or they can change course, easing the lockdowns and other measures, mollifying the protesters and recharging the national economy.
There are small signs at the local-government level that the protests are having an impact. In Urumqi, officials announced that covid cases had been cleared and that people could go out again in low-risk areas, and on Monday, the Beijing government also said barriers would no longer be used to block neighborhoods during lockdowns.
But the national leadership continues to stand by the overarching zero-covid policy. A few weeks ago, the central government announced a plan to ease some restrictions, including quarantine lengths, but even that slight relaxation sent caseloads surging to record levels. In response, the government fell back on familiar tools. Meanwhile, China has refused to approve foreign mRNA vaccines, favoring weaker domestic vaccines. That, taken together with the limited number of domestic infections to date, means the population is much more vulnerable to covid compared with battle-worn countries like the U.S.
All of which makes it hard to see how the government will answer the “end the lockdowns” movement and how that movement might end. It’s less than a week since the fire that started it all; at a minimum, these few days have shown that the government’s grip isn’t quite as tight as many believed.
An earlier version of this article misstated Christian Goebel's title. This version has been corrected.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.