Is China heading toward another Tiananmen Square moment?

How a deadly fire in Xinjiang ignited a nationwide protest against zero-covid in China.

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

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.

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?

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.”

“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.

Whither “zero-covid”?

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.

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.

Start your day with the biggest stories and exclusive reporting from The Messenger Morning, our weekday newsletter.
By signing up, you agree to our privacy policy and terms of use.
Sign Up.