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"This is huge": Protests in China over COVID restrictions bring back memories of Tiananmen Square

China protests echo scenes from the past
China protests echo scenes at Tiananmen Square 02:55

Some of China's largest cities are easing COVID-19 restrictions Thursday after thousands of people blasted the government's COVID policies over the weekend in arguably China's most significant public demonstrations in decades.

The protests bring back memories of unrest that erupted 33 years ago when university students led demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square — the last time China saw anything like this week's historic protests, said Zhang Lijia, a Chinese journalist based in London. 

"This is huge," Zhang said of the recent unrest – which marks the first time since 1989 that China has seen protests explicitly calling for the downfall of China's Communist Party.  

Zhang led a pro-democracy protest in 1989 in the southern city of Nanjing and was interrogated by police. She said it takes courage to go out in the street and protest. 

This frame grab from eyewitness video footage made available via AFPTV on November 27, 2022 shows demonstrators shouting slogans in Shanghai.  AFPTV/AFP via Getty Images

Over the weekend, demonstrators gathered in at least ten cities — including Shanghai and Beijing — calling for the resignation of President Xi Jinping over draconian COVID-19 policies that have seen hundreds of millions of people fenced into their apartment buildings. 

An apartment fire in the western Xinjiang region last week appeared to have been the final straw that pushed people to their breaking points. Ten people were killed in the blaze, prompting an angry crowd to gather around government offices, convinced strict COVID restrictions had prevented residents from escaping the fire.

Those leading chants against the Communist Party will "very likely" end up in prison — "or maybe even worse,"  Zhang said. 

The Tiananmen protests ended with a ruthless crackdown –.a bloody massacre carried out by China's military. Zhang said she learned something at that time about the ruthlessness of the Communist Party.

"Until the last minute, we did not believe that the government would really open fire on its own people," she said. "The lesson is: they would do anything to preserve their power."

But Zhang said the upheaval in 1989 forced China's leaders to give their people more personal and economic freedom. 

It's been a recipe for success until recently, with heavy-handed COVID restrictions forcing entire neighborhoods into quarantine.

"Chinese people have a reputation for being gentle or even docile," said Zhang. "But the people are not stupid."

Haley Ott, Elizabeth Palmer and Shuai Zhang contributed to this article. 

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