Still, without some of China’s elite breaking with Mr. Xi to support the protesters, William Hurst, a Northwestern University scholar, wrote on Twitter, “the most likely scenario I can see is that the protests fizzle out (as most such movements do in most countries).”

“Having erupted spontaneously in a short period,” predicted Mr. Hurst, who studies Chinese social movements, “they will fade away without reaching any climax or denouement.”

Throughout most of the 20th century, mass protests seeking a change in government grew steadily more common and more likely to succeed worldwide, felling many a dictator. By the early 2000s, two in three such movements ultimately succeeded, according to research led by Erica Chenoweth of Harvard University.

In retrospect, it was a high-water mark.

In the mid-2000s, though such protests continued to rise in frequency, their success rate began to drop. By the end of the 2010s, their odds of forcing a change in government had halved, to one in three. Data from the early 2020s suggests that it may have already halved again, to one in six.

“Nonviolent campaigns are seeing their lowest success rates in more than a century,” Dr. Chenoweth wrote in a recent paper, though this applied only to movements seeking a leader’s removal or territorial independence.

Curiously, this change arrived just as mass protests became more common, faster to rise and larger in size worldwide — a trend that China’s lightening-strike protests, stretching over multiple cities, would seem to fit.

What changed?

Social media, which enables protesters to gather in once-unthinkable numbers with little formal leadership, may paradoxically also undermine those movements, according to a theory by Zeynep Tufekci, a Columbia University sociologist and New York Times Opinion columnist.



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