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Will China Repeat the Tiananmen Massacre If Protests Continue?

After obediently following authorities’ extreme COVID control policy for three years, the Chinese people have finally taken to the streets to say “NO!” Since an apartment fire in Urumqi on November 26, 2022 sparked protests throughout China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is under pressure to decide how it will respond to an ongoing groundswell of public discontent.

Background: the Foxconn Factory Protests, World Cup, and Urumqi Fire

The first major recent Chinese protest broke out in late October 2022 at manufacturer Foxconn’s factory in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province. The factory manufactures iPhones in accordance with a contract with the American company Apple. Following positive COVID test results among workers, the factory decided to confine all 200,000 of its workers in its closed compound so as to enforce COVID quarantine restrictions. Despite the lockdown, the manufacturing site carried on with iPhone production. On October 29, tens of thousands of workers broke out of the factory, dismantling the lockdown fences and beginning their journeys home (though it would be a long journey on foot for many of them, as public transportation is unavailable to people whose health-code apps display a positive covid status). The factory quickly hired and onboarded 100,000 replacement workers. On November 22, after the replacement workers found out that Foxconn tried to cheat them on payment terms, they protested and clashed with the police  The factory has since agreed to let go whoever wants to leave with 10,000 Yuan (about US $1,400) of severance pay. {1}

These two events at the Zhengzhou Foxconn factory are significant in that they set a precedent wherein demonstrators could actually get what they were protesting for – a rarity under the CCP’s rule.

Meanwhile, on November 11, the CCP announced a slight loosening of its COVID control policy. The loosening is relatively insignificant. For example, the updated policy requires that people who had close contact with a COVID patients follow the “5+3” rule (five days of centralized quarantine followed by an additional three days of home quarantine) instead of the previously required “7+3” rule. {2} The state media continued its messaging about the necessity of adherence to the COVID policy. Thus, the Chinese people did not see an outright end to China’s COVID lockdown and control coming in the near future.

Video footage of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which began on November 20 and is scheduled to run through December 18, provided the Chinese people with a sharp contrast to their own situation – watching the soccer games, many Chinese people were surprised to see that soccer fans in Qatar were neither wearing face masks nor keeping social distancing. This led many Chinese to question why they are still required to follow mask and social-distancing mandates. The CCP had been brainwashing the Chinese people about how dangerous the COVID virus is and thus how “correct” the Chinese government has been in enforcing its zero-COVID policy.

Finally, the Xinjiang tragedy on November 24 further fanned the flames of public grievances. A fire started on the 15th floor of a building in Urumqi, Xinjiang, at around 7:49pm. {3} At the time, the city of Urumqi had been locked down for over 100 days. Though fire engines quickly arrived near the building, they were unable to come close enough to fight the blaze due to obstructions related to Urumqi’s COVID lockdown. First, people had to remove the COVID roadblocks that had been set up to prevent people and cars from leaving the area, and then parked cars had to be removed from the narrow alleyway leading to the burning building. Some electric cars couldn’t start as their batteries had died after being left unused for months during lockdown. Eventually, people had to carry the cars out of the way to clear a path for the fire engines to pass through. According to Xinhua news agency, the fire was put out around 10:35pm, over two and half hours after it started. {4} Authorities announced 10 deaths and 9 injuries, though some people have said the actual death toll was much higher.

What pushed public anger to a boiling point was the authorities’ response in the aftermath of the incident. Authorities had previously sealed the burned apartment units from outside so as to enforce COVID lockdowns; residents were unable to leave their apartments as they burned. Nevertheless, on the news briefing on November 25, the Head of Tianshan District, Urumqi denied the sealing of apartments and blamed the deaths on the victims instead, as “some residents had weaker self-helping capability.” {5}

Current Protests

On November 25, the day following the Urumqi fire, angry people from different cities took to the streets. One online posting said, “First, when people in Shanghai jumped out of buildings, I didn’t speak. Next when people in Xinjiang burnt in a fire, I didn’t speak. Then when it comes to the time for me to die, no one will speak for me either.”

From Wuhan to Shanghai, from Chengdu to Beijing, people in many cities protested against the CCP’s COVID policies. Students in Tsinghua University shouted calls for “Democracy, the Rule of Law, and Freedom of Expression.” {6} People in Shanghai shouted, “Xi Jinping, Step Down! CCP, Step Down!” {7} Nearly ten thousand people took to the streets in Chengdu, shouting slogans such as “Freedom of Speech! Freedom of the Media! Oppose Dictatorship! Long Live the People! Long Live Freedom!” {8}

In many cities, people held up blank sheets of paper in their hands. The blank paper has several symbolic meanings. It can be viewed as a protest against the authorities’ silencing of public discourse. It can be seen as an appeal for a “blank slate,” ie. for a brand-new China, It can also be a way for protesters to signal their discontentment while hedging in case they are arrested, as technically, although it represents a protest, the empty paper doesn’t display any “anti-CCP” slogan. As one commentator on the Internet said, “Although I didn’t write anything, you know what I’m talking about!”

As of November 27, at least 103 universities across the country had seen student protests, including Tsinghua University and Peking University. Many of the protests featured students holding up blank sheets of paper. {9} Fearing further protests, Tsinghua University switched all classes to an online format and has started sending students home. {10} Many other colleges followed suit. Students packed the Guangzhou streets and crowded the train station as they rushed to leave their colleges. {11}

Significance of the Protests

There are several key takeaways from these sudden protests in China.

First, the protests have been widespread across many cities. Since the COVID control impacts everyone, all cities are potential protest sites and, from the CCP’s perspective, everyone in China is a potential protester.

Second, protesters’ appeals in several cities have met with success. This is very unusual given the CCP’s history of squashing dissent. In addition to the two victories at Foxconn, people in Haizhu District – the region of Guangzhou City that’s currently most severely infected by COVID and that is thus the most rigidly locked-down – took to the streets on November 14 and 15, ultimately forcing the city government to end lockdowns in the district. {12} Similarly, people in Urumqi City took to the streets on November 25, and the government ended lockdowns in some neighborhoods on the following day. {13}

Last but not least, these protests are physical. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been several “virtual” protests involving Chinese people taking to social media to speak out about their unhappiness. All such online trends were eventually contained by the CCP’s censorship apparatus. The CCP put out these fires with its mighty Internet army, which consists of several hundred thousand volunteers and paid members, as well as the social media companies’ own censorship teams. In addition to these censors, many worked to remove online posts and close accounts. The local police harassed media reporters and arrested some activists who had made prominent posts on the web.

Unlike the several online protests in recent years, the recent protests in China involve people walking down to their locked gates or taking to the streets. for now, at least, it appears that the authorities are either not ready or lack sufficient force to crack down on the protests.

The CCP’s Reaction So Far

Some local authorities have yielded to protesters’ demands, relaxing COVID controls in certain regions. The central government has also made a conciliatory gesture regarding COVID restrictions. The National Health Commission stated on November 29 that “COVID control should lock down quickly and open up quickly (afterwards)” and “wherever it can open up, it should open up.” {14}

On the other hand, the CCP has also showed its tough side in dealing with the protests. The Political and Legal Affairs Committee (PLAC), the top CCP organ in charge of domestic security and the judicial system, held a meeting on November 28 broadcasting an order to “resolutely combat the infiltration and destructive activities by the hostile forces, and resolutely combat the illegal and criminal acts that disrupt the social order.” {15} Truckloads of armed police have been dispatched to Shanghai and Beijing. In Guangzhou, police have clashed with protesters – demonstrators threw glass bottles at the police, and the police have used tear gas to disperse protestors. {16}

Why Beijing Won’t Take Violent Military Action

It seems that the CCP is using both the carrot (relaxing the COVID control policy) and the stick (the police) to quiet down the protests. If the protests continue and the situation escalates further, what will the CCP do next? Will it use its military to kill demonstrators as it did in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre?

We believe this is unlikely. Several factors deter the CCP from choosing such a bloody option.

I. The atmosphere is not ripe for such violent action.

As said by Lao Tzu, a sage of ancient China, “When people are not afraid of death, how can you threaten them with death?” Under the current circumstances, the Chinese people likely feel that they do not have much to lose, as continuing on the path of “zero-COVID” would only lead to further misery.

For the Chinese people, the “zero-COVID” policy is not a mere inconvenience.  It can also, in reality, take their lives (or inflict tremendous damage upon them). The stringent lockdown policies have led to many deaths by starvation or from a lack of medical care, as people have been physically sealed inside their homes and unable to leave. The deaths in the Urumqi fire, which were the catalyst for the current protests, are a particularly poignant example of this. This mortal peril is on top of the financial distress felt by many Chinese. The economy has tumbled, and many have lost jobs or assets as the stock market has turned down and the housing market has collapsed.

If the CCP were to bring out its big guns and threaten the populace with death, there’s a chance that the threats would fall flat as people might reason: “Since obeying the authorities and going back to lockdown is also a death sentence, being obedient offers no hope and fighting back may give us a better chance at survival.” The CCP’s ruling elite has likely calculated this possibility. Using extreme violence to suppress the protests may amount to an act of suicide. If the CCP’s gunshots cannot scare the protestors into submission, then the regime’s legitimacy will be challenged and the CCP may be overthrown.

Moreover, the international community is not primed to accept a mass killing of Chinese people by the CCP. Beijing would inevitably be sanctioned (or worse) following a large-scale military massacre. Heavy sanctions could deal a fatal blow to China’s economy, which is heavily reliant on exports. The U.S. and the West have set a precedent in sanctioning Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, and the sanctions have been at least somewhat effective. Moreover, the honeymoon between China and the West is over. Recently, the West has viewed the CCP as a competitor, with the U.S. taking tough regulatory actions such as banning Huawei and stopping exports of advanced chip technology to China.

II. There are technical challenges preventing the violent military suppression of protests.

The current protests follow a pattern where an incident in one city (e.g. the Xinjiang fire) triggers protests in other cities. If the CCP were to send military personnel to some cities and not to others, or if the personnel were inadequate in certain cities, shows of force in one location might well be followed by new protests in other places.

The 1989 the Tiananmen democracy movement was centered in Beijing. This time, the protests have spread all throughout China. In 1989, the CCP was able to pull in several hundred thousand soldiers to surround Beijing and conduct the Tiananmen massacre. If Beijing wants to stop all of the protests this time, it will need to send soldiers or armed police to many places. However, for the CCP to send forces to every city would be logistically impossible. Even if it were possible, the CCP’s forces would be spread too thin to put out all of the fires in every city.

Also, there is the question of whether the soldiers and the armed police would be willing to fire on the protesters. During the Tiananmen Massacre, the CCP brainwashed its soldiers for weeks before they were deployed to squash the protests. The soldiers were cut off from normal news and studied only the “official statement” (a People’s Daily commentary declared that the protest was against the government); they were told that the protesters were anti-revolutionaries. This time around, it is hard to imagine that the CCP would be able to completely brainwash its soldiers with one-sided stories. Moreover, many soldiers may already be opposed to the current COVID policy (and thus sympathetic to the protesters). Soldiers may have suffered themselves under the COVID lockdowns, or they may have family members or friends who have suffered. Would such a force be willing to fire upon protesters to defend the COVID policy? Dissent or rebellion by even a small subset of the military could lead to a massive loss of face for the CCP leadership. How would the CCP identify and filter out those potentially-disobedient soldiers? Such purging of the ranks would need to be conducted quickly, as the protests are ongoing.

Moreover, taking military action would run the risk that certain high-ranking officials may choose not to follow the party line. Nowadays, most officials working within the CCP are technocrats. They view their work and the power that they hold mainly as a job, allowing them to make money. They do not identify strongly with the country as as en entity they would follow, fight for, or kill and die for.

Only the first generation of the CCP officials, those who fought in the civil war (including Mao, Deng, etc.) and the “Second Red Generation” (the princelings who are direct descendants of the first generation) took an ownership view towards the country. In the face of an overwhelming resistance from the public, today’s technocrats within the regime may choose not to defend the CCP. Many officials already have an exit strategy in place, having sent their money and even their family members abroad.

III. The military option presents political and military risk to Xi Jinping personally.

If Xi orders troops to fire upon protesters, he will risk having some military officials disobey his commands, which would be perilous to his rule over China. Though the Chinese military provided a strong endorsement to Xi preceding the start of his third term as General Secretary of the CCP, that support was weaker than the support enjoyed by former CCP leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng had full, insider control over the military, as he had served as a high-ranking military official before becoming the country’s paramount leader. As the Political Commissar of the Second Field Army (the CCP had four field armies), Deng served alongside Marshall Liu Bocheng as Commander during China’s civil war – their army was called the “Liu-Deng Army.” With utmost prestige and many subordinates in the miliary, after rising to the top of the CCP’s leadership, Deng had total authority over the army. He was thus in a position to order the Tiananmen massacre.

Unlike Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping does not have military experience. The military’s loyalty to Xi is more fragile than was their loyalty to Deng. The army’s loyalty to Xi is based on his promotion of generals rather than on the bonding of war or respect for wartime leadership. Thus, Xi will worry that military generals may resist if he orders them to kill civilians. Even during Deng’s 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, General Xu Qinxian (徐勤先), the commander of the 38th Group Army, refused to carry out an order to fire on student protesters. Deng was able to prosecute him, sentencing him to five years in prison via a military tribunal. In the face of a military sympathetic to protesters, Xi might face more disobedience than did Deng.

Moreover, if Xi orders the military officers to kill their own countrymen, and even if all the top-level officers support him, some low-level officers may choose to follow their conscience and defend the protesters. A civil war in China would be disastrous for Xi’s grip on power.

This risk is acute for Xi, as the strategy of promotion-for-loyalty that Xi used to gain military support has only worked for high-ranking generals. Indeed, Xi is not able to reach all the mid-level and grassroot-level officer positions via the promotion-for-loyalty strategy. Xi recently suffered the consequence of lacking lower-level support in another arena. When he ordered a lock down in Shanghai in early 2022, low-level CCP officials in Shanghai did not heed Xi’s orders. Despite support for Xi from the Shanghai Party Chief Li Qiang, low-level officials’ refusal to carry out Xi’s orders resulted in a humanitarian crisis, as food delivery and other service could not be provided to many locked-down residents. This resulted in a lot of negative publicity for Xi. {17}

Another worry for Xi is whether generals charged with squashing protests will become too powerful, thus rendering Xi ineffective as a military leader. Those generals, after commanding lethally-armed soldiers and gaining power under martial law, might be able to change the political landscape in China.

Throughout the CCP’s infighting, the military has often played a critical role. After Mao Zedong’s death, Military Marshall Ye Jianying (叶剑英) was key in plotting the coup to arrest the “Gang of Four,” which included Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. Later, Deng Xiaoping was backed by the military in his 1989 purge of then CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Indeed, backing from a powerful military has often been critical in the success of political campaigns within the CCP. Xi may worry that empowering military generals could expose him to the risk of a coup.

Political Preferences

Different groups of officials have different stances regarding the ongoing protests in China.

I. Xi Jinping’s Preferences

Xi Jinping will likely prefer a less-confrontational response to the protests. Having just secured his third five-year term as leader of the CCP, he is about to start an era of full control of China with his loyalists filling key positions in the government. As such, a stable political environment is most desirable to him.

If Xi chooses to respond to the protests, he may do so by appeasing the public by modifying or partially repealing the “zero-COVID” policy. On the other hand, if Xi does not compromise, the protests may continue to escalate, potentially leading to an unmanageable situation out of his control.

II. The Shanghai Clique’s Preferences

The faction of recently-deceased former CCP leader Jiang Zemin (now led by the group’s second in command Zeng Qinghong), may prefer a route that creates more turmoil for Xi. As Chinascope pointed out in the article “A Shanghai Faction Media Coup ahead of the 20th Party Congress,” {18} this faction, also called the “Shanghai Clique,” has been Xi’s foe from day one when Xi took power.

Several loyalists to the Shanghai Clique have been implicated in plans to depose Xi. For example, Jiang loyalists Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang planned a coup against Xi and were taken down in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Jiang faction member Sun Lijun was also taken down earlier in 2022 for plotting a coup against Xi. As Xi consolidated power at the 20th Party Congress, he is now in a much better position to take on the Shanghai clique. Thus, to save itself, the Shanghai faction may wish to create more trouble for Xi.

As the Shanghai clique does not have the capacity to take on Xi in a face-to-face battle, it may opt to throw curve balls instead. The bigger the troubles it can create for Xi, the better the chance that it can save itself by overthrowing Xi. From this angle, this faction may stand to benefit from supporting the protests in clandestine ways. The faction may also wish to use its influence in international media, as it did earlier this year during the Shanghai lockdowns, to criticize Xi and advocate for his removal.

III. Local Government Preferences

From the perspective of rank-and-file CCP members, China’s rigid COVID control measures have been a self-imposed disaster. Since Xi began advancing a policy of strict, ongoing lockdowns, the strictness with which an official enforces the COVID policy has become a measure of his loyalty to Xi. Many local officials went overboard with COVID control measures so as to demonstrate their willingness to carry out Xi’s orders.

Exaggerated COVID-control measures intensified significantly during the past several months when officials were fighting for seats at the 20th Party Congress. Now that the Party Congress has passed, these local officials may be willing to relax enforcement of COVID policies.

Moreover, there are financial incentives for local officials to ease their enforcement of COVID control. Right now, each local government pays for all or most of its COVID control expenses. This includes COVID testing, staff salary, modular hospital construction, fencing and door monitoring tools, and more. This has burned a big hole in local governments’ budgets. Moreover, COVID lockdowns have a detrimental impact on economic activity, thus further affecting the coffers of local governments.

According to Li Keqiang, the outgoing Premier of China, the central government does not have money to cover the enforcement of COVID control. Thus, even if local governments want to continue enforcing strict COVID policy, they are fast running out of the money to do so. This explains why some local authorities were quick to ease their COVID control policies following recent public protests.

Nevertheless, the upper leadership of the CCP will likely be hesitant to yield to public pressure and ease COVID control measures. If the CCP walks back its COVID policy in response to the protests, it will set a precedent that the public can get what it wants through demonstrations. This could possibly inspire more protests down the road.

As we continue to observe the developments in China, let’s keep one thing in mind: The fundamental cause for all the humanitarian crises in China is not any one official or one group of elites. Rather, it is the CCP system. Curing the root cause will require removing or dramatically changing that system. This article asks the question, “Will China Repeat the Tiananmen Massacre If Protests Continue?”  The world hopes, on behalf of all those who live in China, that both the Chinese people and all of the leaders who face their protests have learned a great deal since June 4, 1989.


{1} Zaobao, “Foxconn’s ‘Big Escape from COVID’ to ‘Big Protest,’” November 24, 2022.
{2} Chinascope, “China Released 20 Measures on the Control of COVID,” November 13, 2022.
{3} Reuters, “Apartment fire in China’s Xinjiang region kills 10,” November 26, 2022.
{4} Way Back Machine, “Fire At A High-Rise Building In Urumqi Caused Ten Deaths,” November 25, 2022.
{5} Epoch Times, “Xinjiang Officials Blamed Fire Death on Residents Themselves,” November 25, 2022.
{6} China Digital Times, “Tsinghua University Students Protest,” November 27, 2022.
{7} Radio Free Asia, “Calls for ‘CCP, Step Down,’” November 27, 2022.
{8} Aboluo, “People in Chengdu: Want Human Right, Want Freedom, Oppose Dictatorship, Long Lived the People,” November 27, 2022.
{9} Aboluo, “Protest Has Spread to 103 Universities in China,” November 28, 2022.
{10} Net Ease, “Tsinghua University Sent Students Home,” November 28, 2022.
{11} Yahoo, “Students Left Guangzhou At Night,” November 29, 2022.影-學生連夜出廣州-擠爆國道-露宿車站畫面被瘋傳-北京生-020515137.html.
{12} China Digital Times, “Guangzhou Haizhu District People Protest, Authorities Sent Police to Crack Down,” November 17, 2022.
{13} Epoch Times, “Urumqi Citizens Protested Lockdown,” November 26, 2022.
{14} The Paper, “National Health Commissions: COVID Control Should Lock Down Quickly and Reopen Quickly,” November 29, 2022.
{15} China News Agency, November 29, 2022.
{16} SET News, “Clash Between Police and Protesters,” November 30, 2022.
{17} Chinascope, “Did Political Infighting Cause Shanghai’s COVID Chaos?” April 15, 2022
{18} Chinascope, “A Shanghai Faction Media Coup ahead of the 20th Party Congress,” October 30, 2022