UPDATE 1-U.S. diplomat says China protests had effect in easing COVID curbs

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By Michael Martina

WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Protests in China against the world's toughest COVID-19 restrictions are dying down because they have had an effect, a top U.S. diplomat said on Friday, as Beijing further eased testing and quarantine rules.

Anger over the curbs had fueled dozens of protests in more than 20 cities in recent days in a show of civil disobedience unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

While the easing of some measures appears to be an attempt to appease the public, Chinese authorities have also begun to seek out those who have been at the protests.

"I think we have seen the protests die down now in China, and the reason they've died down is they actually had an effect," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said at an American University event in Washington.

"They are allowing people to quarantine in their homes as opposed to quarantine in fever hospitals. They say they are going to open step by step in this," Sherman said of Beijing's response.

"Protests do matter," she said, adding that she recognized China had used security forces to quash the demonstrations and put protesters in jail.

On Monday, the White House said it backed the right of people to protest peacefully in China but stopped short of criticizing Beijing for its crackdown. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC News on Wednesday that such efforts by governments to suppress protests were a "sign of weakness."

Sherman's comments came after two days of talks with European External Action Service Secretary General Stefano Sannino on China and Indo-Pacific issues, in which the two expressed concerns about China's "provocations" toward self-governed Taiwan.

Asked by students at the university event about the threat of conflict between China and Taiwan, Sherman said war was possible.

"I think war is potentially possible because Xi Jinping now has absolute control in China," Sherman said.

"So our effort is to deter that. To urge China not to go in that direction. But also to support Taiwan to have the means to defend itself," she said.

Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control. (Reporting by Michael Martina in Washington and Costas Pitas in Los Angeles; Editing by Diane Craft and Daniel Wallis)