Xi Jinping is currently dealing with a wave of public unrest that has not been seen in decades, brought on by his “zero COVID” strategy, which will soon enter its fourth year, barely a month after giving himself new authority as China’s potential leader for life.

Over the weekend, protesters flooded the streets of cities like Shanghai and Beijing, denouncing the policy, engaging with police, and even demanding that Xi resign. Demonstrators gathered on Monday in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous southern city, where a harsh crackdown after months of protests that started in 2019 nearly put an end to the pro-democracy movement.

Oppose dictature, students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong chanted, and “Freedom! Freedom!” In the Central neighborhood, which had served as the focal point of earlier demonstrations, floral tributes were laid.

In response, police in Shanghai dispersed the protesters with pepper spray, and dozens were apprehended during police swoops and transported in police vans and buses. China’s extensive internal security system is renowned for spotting potential troublemakers and apprehending them later when no one is looking.

More protests might happen, but it’s uncertain. Internet content supporting them was removed by government censors. Analysts also assert that the Communist Party ought to be able to tamp down the dissent barring the emergence of divisions.

China’s strict regulations were initially praised for reducing fatalities while other nations experienced devastating waves of infections, but this consensus has started to erode recently.

The ruling party claims that anti-coronavirus measures should be “targeted and precise” and cause the least amount of disruption to people’s lives; however, if outbreaks take place, local officials risk losing their jobs or receiving other penalties. In response, they’ve put in place quarantines and other restrictions, which protesters claim go beyond what the central government permits.

The difficulties the policy has brought about don’t seem to worry Xi’s unelected government all that much. Millions of people living in Shanghai were subjected to a strict lockdown this spring, which led to food shortages, constrained access to healthcare, and financial hardship. Nevertheless, in October, the city’s party secretary, a Xi loyalist, was appointed to the Communist Party’s No. 2 position.

Minorities, such as Tibetans and Muslim groups like the Uyghurs, have long been subject to surveillance and travel restrictions by the party. More than 1 million of them have been detained in camps where they are made to renounce their traditional culture and religion and swear allegiance to Xi.

However, a sizable portion of the educated urban middle class from the ethnic Han majority participated in this weekend’s protests. In order to maintain an unwritten post-Tiananmen agreement to accept autocratic rule in exchange for a better standard of living, the ruling party depends on that group.

According to Hung Ho-fung of Johns Hopkins University, it now appears that the previous arrangement has ended as the party imposes control at the expense of the economy.

According to Hung, for the protests to grow to the size of the ones in 1989, there must be distinct leadership differences that can be used to effect change.

At the party congress in October, Xi effectively eliminated these dangers. In defiance of convention, he elected himself to a third five-year term as party chief, filling the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee with supporters. Two potential competitors were told to retire.

Zero COVID has been deemed unsustainable by the World Health Organization’s normally supportive head. Beijing disregarded his comments as careless, but public support for the restrictions has waned.

In some places, people who are quarantined at home claim they don’t have enough food or medicine. And the ruling party faced anger over the deaths of two children whose parents said anti-virus controls hampered efforts to get emergency medical care.

After a fire on Thursday in an apartment building in the northwest Chinese city of Urumqi, which left at least 10 people dead, and where some residents had been confined to their homes for four months, protests broke out. Angry comments about whether locked doors or other pandemic restrictions were preventing firefighters or people trying to flee were made in response to that online.