A review of popular unrest in China in light of the ongoing anti-lockdown protests

Late 1970s saw the Chinese people standing up to exercise their right to dissent for the first time since the foundation of the People’s Republic, coinciding with the end of the Mao era. Here, I touch upon some of the iconic protests that China witnessed in the past five decades.


The ongoing popular protests in mainland China against the Xi Jinping-led party-state’s harsh “zero-Covid” policy, entailing strict lockdown measures, were triggered by a fire outbreak incident in an apartment building in northwestern China’s Urumqi that killed ten people and injured many. The tragedy happened on the night of 24 November 2022 as the residents were unable to escape the building, with the rescue efforts hampered due to the excessively strict lockdown policy. Tens of millions of people in mainland China are still under an extended lockdown of some kind or the other, while much of the rest of the world came back to normal.

The backdrop

Some Chinese workers were reportedly forced to sleep inside the factories itself, while undergoing quarantine. Previously, reports of people trying to come out of shops and factories due to fears that they could be locked inside surfaced in the media. In this backdrop, when the news of Urumqi fire incident came out, it soon struck a chord with the Chinese people, which soon acted as a catalyst for protests and demonstrations in several cities throughout the country, including in Beijing and Shanghai. Hundreds of people took to the streets, pouring out their frustration and anger against the state’s continued oppression of their freedoms under a maximalist approach to Covid response.

Contrary to expectations, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that concluded in October 2022 never announced any relaxations to the “zero-Covid” policy, despite the damages it has done to the economy. For the first time in at least three decades, the CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, who also holds the ceremonial position of the President of China, has consolidated all powers in the recent party congress, in which he eliminated all the rival factions within the party from yielding power in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and the other higher ranks in the party. The “Xi faction” is now the only faction within the CCP’s higher echelons of power.

Déjà vu 1976

Democratic protests seem to be a far-fetched dream in a communist one-party authoritarian state like China. However, the country do have a history of protests, particularly following the dictatorial Mao era (1949-76), when people were given the freedom to express themselves during the “reform and opening-up period” that began in 1978 under the new paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who openly denounced Mao’s hardline policies, which curtailed civil rights of the people and pushed millions into starvation and poverty, resulting from disastrous movements such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It is estimated that during this period, about 65 million Chinese people lost their lives by execution, imprisonment or human-made famines.

Thirteen years before the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre happened, there was another mass gathering of Chinese people in the same place, in April 1976, that was triggered by the death of the widely-popular Premier Zhou Enlai, who has also served as the foreign minister of China from 1949 to 1958. Back then, the Chinese people protested for their right to mourn their much-loved leader as the CCP placed limits on public mourning. People gathered at the Square, coinciding with the Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day (Qingming Festival) and protested the actions of Mao’s team of protégés known as the “Gang of Four”, who ordered the place to be cleared. This was probably the first instance of mass protests in mainland China since 1949 as the Mao era drew closer to its end.

Leadership transition

With the heralding of the Deng Xiaoping-era, shortly following a power struggle with Mao’s designated successor Hua Guofeng at the third plenum of the 11th CCP Central Committee in December 1978, some amount of toleration of political dissent and political expression were allowed, in what came to be known as the “Democracy Wall Movement” or the “Beijing Spring”. But, it lasted only for a year. This was also the time of rapprochement with the United States, which saw the opening of formal diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic for the first time. Washington recognized Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China, at the cost of Taipei. Shortly after this, Deng Xiaoping became the first paramount leader of mainland China to visit the U.S. in January 1979.

Despite these happenings in the diplomatic stage, the CCP continued to remain autocratic at home. The 1980s witnessed the beginning of China’s transformation into a modern industrial powerhouse as private corporations and foreign investments flooded into the country. With the socioeconomic transformation underway and the higher exposure to new ideas of living, the Chinese people started demanding more political freedoms. Hu Yaobang, one of the most trusted lieutenants of Deng, had overseen much of the changes that happened in China in the 1980s in his capacity as CCP General Secretary. He passed away in 1989, two years after he was stripped of power by the party hardliners.

Tiananmen turns bloody

Like Zhou Enlai, Hu was also a widely respected and loved leader in China. Tens of thousands of people gathered at his funeral venue in April 1989 and called for greater political freedoms, mostly youngsters and students. In the weeks that followed, protesters reached Tiananmen Square again. The CCP officials initially had differing views on how to deal with the escalating protests, but only a few maintained a liberal outlook. The hardliners ultimately prevailed over the others in party deliberations. It was also the time the Soviet Union was beginning to disintegrate and China was patching up its ties with the crumbling superpower.

The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was in Beijing, in May 1989, while the student protests were still underway. This was the first engagement between the two countries since the onset of the “Sino-Soviet split” in the 1950s. Martial law was declared in Beijing later that month. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was ordered to clear off the protesters. The first of week of June 1989 saw the PLA tanks and troops marching on the roads of Beijing, finally reaching Tiananmen Square, where they opened fire on peaceful, unarmed protesters and brutally crushed the protests.

Hundreds of Chinese civilians, mostly university students, were killed in the military action, inviting international condemnation of the CCP regime, which continues to erase this dark episode from the public memory. Commemorations of this incident is not allowed in the mainland, while Hong Kong used to do so until 2020-21, when Beijing hijacked the city’s security apparatus by opening a national security office there, which made sure that Tiananmen vigils remained banned in Hong Kong as well.

The purge of Falun Gong

The 1990s saw the rise of a new spiritual movement in China called the Falun Gong, rooted in the traditional practice of Qigong that combines meditation, slow physical movements, and regulated breathing exercises. Having endorsed atheism as state ideology, the CCP under Jiang Zemin perceived the rise of this movement as a threat as it never aligned itself with the official party line. By the end of the decade, China has about seventy million Falun Gong practitioners. Famous China scholar David Ownby mentions in his 2008 book “Falun Gong and the Future of China” that the group has been engaged in about 300 protests and demonstrations between 1996 and 1999.

In April, protests escalated initially in Tianjin and later spread to Beijing’s central administrative area where the CCP and the Chinese State Council were headquartered. This is often cited as the beginning of the end of the movement in China as the CCP started a series of propaganda campaign, chiefly led by the Ministry of Public Security, against its practitioners, which in some cases entailed the use of excessive force including arbitrary arrests, forced labor and physical torture, and at times resulting in deaths, according to a 2000 report by Amnesty International. However, Falun Gong continues to survive among the Chinese diaspora in North America, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

The killing of Hong Kong’s democracy

Hong Kong is one of the two special administrative regions (SAR) of China, along with Macau, with a history of living under a democratic system. In 2014, Hong Kongers protested an attempt by Beijing to dilute the democratic procedure to elect the city’s Chief Executive by introducing a new mandatory pre-screening of candidates. This was aimed at jeopardizing the “one country, two systems” principle and to install a pro-CCP regime in the city, where polls were scheduled to take place three years later. The protesters occupied the city for 79 days, bringing it to a standstill. This came to be known as the “Umbrella Movement” as they used umbrellas to protect themselves from the pepper spray and tear gas used by the police.

Five years later, in 2019, Hong Kongers took to the streets again when the pro-Beijing government of Hong Kong tried to introduce an extradition bill that would have allowed the handover of crime suspects in Hong Kong to mainland China, which could end up in arbitrary detention and unfair trials. This led to series of demonstrations with several instances of violence. Even though the bill was eventually suspended, the protesters numbering in tens of thousands, continued to raise a new set of demands for democracy, thereby spiraling into a broader movement that led to Beijing upping the ante on its crackdown on dissent in the city. Beijing termed the protesters as ‘separatists’ and introduced a new national security law in 2020 that effectively jeopardized the city’s autonomy, in what was dubbed as the Hong Kong’s worst crisis since 1997, the year in which the city’s sovereignty was transferred back to China from the UK.

Oher than the aforementioned instances, China has also witnessed various other protests in the past, but most of them were sporadic in nature, relating to corruption, forced evictions of people for development projects, labour strikes, environmental degradation and so on. With the current leader of China, Xi Jinping, having the firmest grip on power since Mao Zedong, Chinese democratic aspirations appear to be doomed in the foreseeable future.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.