Beijing CNN  — 

After unprecedented protests swept China, several cities have taken steps to ease some Covid-19 restrictions and a top official has signaled a softer approach to virus controls – leading to speculation that an end to zero-Covid may be in sight.

China’s most senior official in charge of its Covid response told health officials Wednesday that a “new stage and mission” in the pandemic response was due to “the decreasing toxicity” of the Omicron variant, increasing vaccinations and the “accumulating experience” of fighting the virus, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan’s comments – which made no mention of “zero-Covid” – came after anger over Beijing’s increasingly costly strategy of mass-testing, enforced quarantine and lockdowns brought thousands of protesters onto the streets of major cities.

As their numbers swelled, many also demanded greater political freedoms – and some even called for the removal of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Protests on such a large scale are highly unusual in China. While demonstrations over local grievances occur periodically, the protests are the most widespread since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement of 1989.

The Chinese government has cracked down swiftly, deploying police at key protest sites, calling protesters to warn them and tightening online censorship.

Here’s what we know.

Why are Chinese people protesting?

The protests were tr