Remembering Sichuan Earthquake Victims: Harder Than You Might Think

Recently, we translated an editorial piece by Hu Yong that stressed the importance of remembering the dead by keeping track of them individually, recognizing them as people instead of numbers. Specifically, Hu praised the efforts of famed artist and social commentator Ai Weiwei, who is currently in the process of investigating and publishing the names of all the students who were killed in the earthquake.

He’s not the only one who’s working on that kind of project. Well, at least, he wasn’t. Environmentalist Tan Zuoren was trying to compile a list of students as well until he was arrested by police “on charges of subversion of state policies”, according to Reuters. Thanks to a piece of private correspondence from a friend, the China Media Project has more information:

On the morning of the 28th, police barged into his home and took away all computer disks, handwritten notes and other materials. Only his children were home at the time, as the police proceeded to photograph the scene […] Tan Zuoren’s mobile phone cannot be reached at present, and his wife and two small children have been along [sic, we suspect this is a typo and should read “alone” -Ed.] at home since his detention.

The letter also excerpts Tan’s proposal in full, which is admittedly rather critical if not directly attacking the central government: “The house of rule of law that the Chinese people have worked so hard to build is lurching on its foundations, and is in peril. China’s has started to turn back on its journey toward judicial reforms,” etc. etc.

Ai Weiwei’s project hasn’t been going completely smoothly, either. According to a post on his blog today, some of the names of students he has been publishing as his investigation continues were deleted by…someone. He posted them again, along with a note: “Who was it, and how can you be so unconscionable?” “For the moment, it hasn’t been deleted again,” he reports.

His investigations haven’t always met full cooperation from the various people in power he seeks information from. The post also has the transcript of one of the project’s volunteers’ telephone calls to a local group leader, which apparently went like this:

“Just now, we hadn’t finished talking and you hung up the phone!”
“You really care so much about this issue [Sichuan earthquake victims]? What’s your motive here?”
“We have no ‘motive’.”
“If you have no motive then why do you care about it?”
“Why aren’t we allowed to [just] care about it, this is an issue for all Chinese people!”
“I’m a Chinese person too! And if you’re a special agent for the Americans? What if you’re an American secret agent, what then?”

[…]

Because the government has already published [these statistics], that’s enough; that you still want to ask about this makes me suspicious, I must uphold the interests of the nation!”
“We’re all upholding the interests of the nation, but the nation must also protect the interests of the people.”
“Yes, that’s for the government to worry about, you don’t need to bother with it.”
“We are citizens, we want to ask you to take some responsibility!”
“How do you know that we haven’t taken responsibility? What’s your excuse for speaking like that! Do you need to speak so harshly?”
“This isn’t a matter of ‘speaking harshly’ or not, it’s a matter of facts!”
“You’re talking about facts? I immediately suspect you are a female secret agent for the Americans.”

Among other things, the post also reports “baffling” cell phone disconnections when Ai Weiwei is talking to foreign reporters.

A completely accurate and full accounting of the earthquake victims could be embarrassing for the Chinese government if it also includes further reports that many of the students died because their schools were poorly constructed. But so obviously impeding these citizen investigators has its downsides too, as ire and suspicion builds among Chinese netizens and it inevitably draws more Western attention to a story that, for all intents and purposes, the Western media was finished reporting on months ago.

On the other hand, it is possible the rhetoric of outspoken critics like Ai Weiwei is getting in the way of their (arguably) noble pursuits here. If their goal is really to remember the dead, some might argue that anti-establishment rhetoric like that found in Tan Zuoren’s project proposal attracts needles — and dangerous — government attention. Government attention could help solve the problem — were the government to produce a full list of names and take responsibility for failing to properly oversee shoddy construction, the tension might be diffused without direct confrontation — but their cooperation, especially the cooperation of local officials whose careers (and potentially, freedom) ride on their remaining blameless, seems unlikely based on these recent reports.

Whatever side of the politics you’re on, the children who died deserve to be remembered. As Ai Weiwei said, “Those kids, they have fathers and mothers, they had dreams and laughs, they had their own names.” Some people might not agree with his methods, but it’s awfully difficult to disagree with the sentiment.

[Housekeeping note: We’ve just updated our recommended blogs list, so head over there and check it out before it’s totally out of date again!]

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