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Nearly half of the Senate signed onto a pointed letter to China’s Ambassador in Washington on Friday, warning of “grave consequences” and “extraordinary damage” to Sino-U.S. relations if Beijing carries out violence against recent protesters. 

The letter, sent to Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang and signed by 42 senators from both parties, said Congress is closely watching the peaceful protests and issued a warning that the Chinese Communist Party should not repeat the infamous violence carried out during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.  

“We are following the current peaceful protests in China over your government’s policies very carefully. We are also closely watching the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reaction to them,” the senators wrote.

“In 1989, the Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army undertook a violent crackdown on peacefully protesting Chinese students, killing hundreds, if not thousands.”

The senators continued, “We caution the CCP in the strongest possible terms not to once again undertake a violent crackdown on peaceful Chinese protesters who simply want more freedom. If that happens, we believe there will be grave consequences for the US-China relationship, causing extraordinary damage to it.”

The letter was led by Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and 38 others from both parties. 

Chinese citizens have launched unprecedented protests across the country, with frustration boiling over against Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strict “zero COVID” lockdown policies. Activists have go so far as to call for Xi and the CCP to be removed from power.

The reaction from U.S. lawmakers strikes a more defiant warning to the CCP than statements from Biden administration officials, who have expressed support for protests that began last weekend but have not issued threats as explicit as the lawmakers’ letter.

Chinese citizens began taking to the streets on Sunday after 10 people were killed in an apartment fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, with the deaths blamed in part on coronavirus lockdown measures.

Protests are being reported in dozens of cities in China, but tracking their proliferation is difficult because Chinese censors are working to take down social media posts and communication related to the dissent. 

The Associated Press reports that Chinese authorities have used pepper spray to disperse hundreds of protesters, and some physical confrontations between protesters and security officials have been observed.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Friday that the Biden administration has consistently talked about “how seriously we take the right of free assembly and freedom of expression and peaceful protests, and we’re going to continue to do that, whether it’s in China or Iran or anywhere else.”

Kirby said the administration is closely watching the protests and also spoke out against the use of violence. 

“We don’t believe and we’ve said this, too, that any government — be that government a democracy or an autocracy — should should coerce, intimidate, hurt or hinder the ability for people to peacefully protest.”

Lawmakers and experts have said the Biden administration is likely taking a cautious approach toward expressing support for the protesters to avoid feeding accusations and propaganda put out in Chinese media that foreign forces are fomenting the unrest. 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN on Tuesday that members of Congress have more freedom than the White House in speaking out against the CCP’s treatment of protesters, saying “We don’t want to feed the propaganda machinery.” 

“If they’re able to portray this as kind of an anti-Chinese or Western plot, that undermines the very protesters that were trying to stand with,” Warner said.