After the biggest outbreak of political demonstrations since the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989, Beijing announced on December 7 that it would end its anti-Covid policies of lockdowns, mass testing, and mass quarantines. The concessions followed a flaring of protests in more than 20 cities, starting in late November. After 10 people were killed in a fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, on November 24, thousands of demonstrators gathered across urban centers and college campuses during the following three days, demanding an end to national zero-Covid policies—and in some cases, chanting calls for President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party to step down.

Amid intensive global media coverage, the challenge to Beijing’s authority has surprised many close observers of Chinese affairs, given the one-party regime’s long history of quashing dissent—and extensive system for surveilling its citizenry. Meanwhile, any change in China’s domestic political dynamics could have major implications for global politics, as Xi has positioned the People’s Republic—and its political system based on centralized control—as the world’s leading rival to the United States in global influence. So, are the recent protests across China a passing phenomenon, or is something fundamentally changing?

Alec Ash is a writer and editor based in China, and the author of Wish Lanterns, a book on the lives of six young Chinese people. As Ash sees it, the protests represent a major landmark—the first time many Chinese have questioned whether the Communist Party was acting in their best interests. He doesn’t see a fundamental threat to the regime yet—because popular grievance has been focused on the zero-Covid policies and not on the system as a whole. But it’s still unclear what will become of the long-simmering discontent in China’s youngest generations, with the growing sentiment among them that the Chinese state isn’t delivering the material improvements it’s promised them in exchange for their hard work—and silence.

Michael Bluhm: Who’s been involved in these protests?

Alec Ash: It’s a good question to start with. Anytime there is a protest in China, headlines in Western media often jump to “Tiananmen Redux!”—and then a closer examination of events on the ground inevitably complicates the analogy. But in this case, the protests beginning on November 24 genuinely were unprecedented in the last 30 years.

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