The Chinese government violently crushed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and has quelled most dissent since then. In the past decade, President Xi Jinping has ramped up repression by jailing human rights activists, boosting internet censorship and surveillance, and harassing journalists and academics who voice criticisms.
But people from all backgrounds continue to resist authority and demonstrate for religious freedom, workplace protections, reparations for man-made disasters, and many other causes. Here’s a look at protests in China since 1989—and what drives activists to stand up against all odds.
Thousands of students, workers, and other citizens spent weeks peacefully protesting for political and economic reform in the spring of 1989. On June 4, Chinese troops entered Tiananmen Square and opened fire, launching a massive crackdown. The estimated death toll ranges from the hundreds to the thousands, and human rights groups believe that as many as ten thousand people were detained. Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
More than ten thousand practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on traditional qigong exercise, protested peacefully outside Communist Party headquarters in Beijing in response to a crackdown that started several years earlier. The government vowed to eliminate the movement, which it called an “evil cult,” and jailed thousands of people. Chien-min Chung/AP Photo
Monks and ethnic Tibetans marched in cities throughout western China to commemorate the forty-ninth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising. Rights organizations say security forces responded violently to protests in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, where rioting broke out, and Xiahe in Gansu Province. In this photo, protesters carry the Tibetan flag in Xiahe. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Thousands of children were among those killed when a devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province caused poorly built schools to collapse. In the aftermath, mourning parents protested unsafe school construction in defiance of local authorities. The central government said it would investigate the schools’ collapse, but later blamed the student deaths on natural causes. Andrew Wong/Getty Images
Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the northwestern Xinjiang region, flooded the regional capital’s streets to protest state-incentivized Han Chinese migration and widespread economic and cultural discrimination. Riots broke out as security forces responded, and nearly two hundred people were killed. In recent years, the government has been accused of arbitrarily detaining at least one million Muslims in reeducation camps. Guang Niu/Getty Images
International activists, foreign governments, and Chinese supporters, seen in this photo, protested on behalf of Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy advocate. Liu helped draft Charter 08, a petition calling for respect of basic human rights. Despite the protests, Liu was sentenced to eleven years in prison, and he died in Chinese custody in 2017. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Workers in many industries have frequently mobilized against state-owned companies, local bosses, and factory owners. The Hong Kong–based nonprofit China Labour Bulletin has estimated there have been more than ten thousand labor protests in the country since 2011. In this photo, employees strike over low wages and working conditions at a Honda factory in Guangdong Province. Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Demonstrating against what they called illegal land sales, protesters temporarily forced police and other officials out of Wukan, a fishing village in southern Guangdong Province. In a compromise, authorities agreed to hold local democratic elections and to investigate the land sales. Years later, villagers protested again, saying they hadn’t gotten their land back. Reuters
About one thousand people occupied a government building in the port city of Qidong to protest the construction of a pipeline that would have emptied industrial waste from a paper factory into the East China Sea. The project was canceled soon after. Environmental protests have been organized throughout China as residents suffer from poor health caused by widespread pollution. Carlos Barria/Reuters
One of the deadliest accidents in years, explosions at a chemical warehouse in the city of Tianjin killed more than 170 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. Survivors demanded that the government fully compensate them for damages, but journalists reported a year later that some residents were still living among the rubble. Chemical accidents such as this are common in China, with Greenpeace estimating that 232 accidents occurred over just eight months in 2016. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Hundreds of former service members called for better benefits and protested against spending cuts outside of the Defense Ministry in Beijing—one of many veterans protests in recent years—but the government responded only by issuing a vague statement. Ng Han Guan/AP Photo
Many protesters have turned to rights lawyers to defend their cases. But in July 2015, the lawyers became victims themselves as the government launched a crackdown, questioning and detaining nearly 250 people, according to human rights groups. The wives of four lawyers shaved their heads to protest their husbands’ treatment in detention. Three of their spouses—Xie Yanyi, Li Heping, and Zhai Yanmin—were released, but Wang Quanzhang remains in custody. Thomas Peter/Reuters