By Jessie Yeung, Tara Subramaniam and CNN’s Beijing bureau
After unprecedented protests swept China, several cities have taken steps to ease some Covid-19 restrictions and a top official has signaled a softer approach to virus controls — leading to speculation that an end to zero-Covid may be in sight.
China’s most senior official in charge of its Covid response told health officials Wednesday that a “new stage and mission” in the pandemic response was due to “the decreasing toxicity” of the Omicron variant, increasing vaccinations and the “accumulating experience” of fighting the virus, according to state news agency Xinhua.
Vice Premier Sun Chunlan’s comments — which made no mention of “zero-Covid” — came after anger over Beijing’s increasingly costly strategy of mass-testing, enforced quarantine and lockdowns brought thousands of protesters onto the streets of major cities.
As their numbers swelled, many also demanded greater political freedoms — and some even called for the removal of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Protests on such a large scale are highly unusual in China. While demonstrations over local grievances occur periodically, the protests are the most widespread since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement of 1989.
The Chinese government has cracked down swiftly, deploying police at key protest sites, calling protesters to warn them and tightening online censorship.
Here’s what we know.
What’s behind the protests?
The demonstrations were triggered by a deadly fire on November 24 in Urumqi, the capital of the far western region of Xinjiang. The blaze killed at least 10 people and injured nine in an apartment building — leading to public fury after videos of the incident appeared to show lockdown measures had delayed firefighters from reaching the victims.
The city had been under lockdown for more than 100 days, with residents unable to leave the region and many forced to stay home.
Videos showed Urumqi residents marching to a government building and chanting for the end of lockdown on Friday. The following morning, the local government said it would lift the lockdown in stages — but did not provide a clear time frame or address the protests.
That failed to quell public anger and the protests rapidly spread beyond Xinjiang, with residents in cities and universities across China also taking to the streets.
Where have protests taken place?
So far, CNN has verified 23 demonstrations since Saturday across 17 Chinese cities — including the capital Beijing and financial center Shanghai.
In Shanghai on Saturday, hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil on Urumqi Road, named after the Xinjiang city, to mourn the fire victims. Many held up blank sheets of white paper — a symbolic protest against censorship — and chanted, “Need human rights, need freedom.”
Some also shouted for Xi to “step down,” and sang “The Internationale,” a socialist anthem used as a call to action in demonstrations worldwide for more than a century. It was also sung during pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing before a brutal crackdown by armed troops in 1989.
By Sunday evening, mass demonstrations had spread to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan, where thousands of residents called for not only an end to Covid restrictions, but more remarkably, political freedoms. Residents in some locked-down neighborhoods tore down barriers and took to the streets.
Protests also took place on campuses, including the prestigious institutions of Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Communication University of China, Nanjing.
In Hong Kong, where a national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020 has been used to stifle dissent, dozens of people gathered on Monday evening in the city’s Central district for a vigil. Some held blank pieces of paper, while others left flowers and held signs commemorating those killed in the Urumqi fire.
What does this mean for zero-Covid?
Vice Premier Sun’s remarks Wednesday about China’s “new stage and mission” in pandemic controls came just one day after the country’s National Health Commission (NHC) said the rectification of current pandemic measures is underway and local governments should “respond to and resolve the reasonable demands of the masses” in a timely manner.
In a meeting with the NHC on Wednesday, Sun also stated that a “human-centered approach” should be taken, and China should enhance its “diagnosis, testing, treatment and quarantine” measures, continue boosting vaccination rates — especially among elderly people — and strengthen medication and medical resources.
Experts have previously said higher vaccination rates among the elderly was necessary before any potential relaxation of restrictions.
At a State Council press briefing on Tuesday, top health officials appeared to acknowledge the disruptions caused by measures such as lockdowns, saying long-term closures “can cause anxiety and life difficulties.”
NHC spokesperson Mi Feng said Covid policies were being rectified to include lifting lockdown “as quickly as possible” to reduce inconvenience.
In recent days, at least six cities across China, including Beijing, have made changes to their Covid policies, in some cases lifting lockdowns, easing quarantine requirements and eliminating mass testing, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.
Since Monday, the number of locally transmitted Covid cases reported daily in China has been declining, based on NHC data.
Why are these protests significant?
Public protest is exceedingly rare in China, where the Communist Party has tightened its grip on all aspects of life, launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent, wiped out much of civil society and built a high-tech surveillance state.
The mass surveillance system is even more stringent in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is accused of detaining up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in camps where former detainees have alleged they were physically and sexually abused.
A damning United Nations report in September described the region’s “invasive” surveillance network, with police databases containing hundreds of thousands of files with biometric data such as facial and eyeball scans.
China has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses in the region.
While protests do occur in China, they rarely happen on this scale or take such direct aim at the central government and the nation’s leader, said Maria Repnikova, an associate professor at Georgia State University who studies Chinese politics and media.
“This is a different type of protest from the more localized protests we have seen recurring over the past two decades that tend to focus their claims and demands on local officials and on very targeted societal and economic issues,” she said. Instead, this time the protests have expanded to include “the sharper expression of political grievances alongside concerns about Covid-19 lockdowns.”
There have been growing signs in recent months that the public has run out of patience with zero-Covid, after nearly three years of economic hardship and disruption to daily life.
Isolated pockets of protest broke out in October, with anti-zero-Covid slogans appearing on the walls of public bathrooms and in various Chinese cities, inspired by a banner hung by a lone protester on an overpass in Beijing just days before Xi cemented a third term in power.
Earlier in November, larger protests took place in Guangzhou, with residents defying lockdown orders to topple barriers and cheer as they took to the streets.
How have authorities reacted?
While protests in several parts of China appear to have largely dispersed peacefully over the weekend, authorities responded more forcefully in some cities on Monday and Tuesday, flooding protest sites to discourage people from gathering.
Authorities in some cities have also adopted surveillance tactics, such as those used in Xinjiang, to intimidate those who demonstrated over the weekend.
In what appeared to be the first official — albeit veiled — response to the protests, China’s domestic security chief vowed at a meeting Tuesday to “effectively maintain overall social stability.”
Without mentioning the demonstrations, Chen Wenqing urged law enforcement officials to “resolutely strike hard against infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces, as well as illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order,” Xinhua reported.
The tough language may signal a heavy-handed crackdown ahead.
How has the world responded?
In recent days, vigils and demonstrations expressing solidarity with protesters in China have been held around the world, including in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, the United States and Malaysia.
Foreign officials and organizations have also voiced support for the protesters and criticized Beijing’s response.
“We’re watching this closely, as you might expect we would,” said US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby on Monday. “We continue to stand up and support the right of peaceful protest.”
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told reporters the Chinese government should “listen to the voices of its own people … when they are saying that they are not happy with the restrictions imposed upon them.”
The European Broadcasting Union also said on Monday that it condemned “the intolerable intimidation and aggression” directed toward member journalists in China, in an apparent reference to foreign journalists who were detained during protests.
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CNN’s Nectar Gan, Wayne Chang, Selina Wang, Bex Wright, Ivan Watson and Philip Wang contributed reporting.