Is Ai Weiwei Having an Impact?

Since last year’s earthquake, the government has stubbornly refused to release the numbers of students killed. Ai Weiwei’s volunteer project, a group attempt to collect and release the number and names of the students who died, has recently gained some attention, on this blog and elsewhere, largely because of the resistance Ai has encountered from local officials and police while attempting to collect these names. But is the government feeling some pressure? A New York Times piece today is cause for, if nothing else, curiosity:

China said Thursday that 5,335 students died in last year’s Sichuan earthquake, the first official tally for students in what became a politically charged issue because of allegations of shoddy school construction.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the overall death toll for Sichuan province in the May 12 earthquake was unchanged at 68,712. Some 18,000 people are still officially listed as missing, and are presumed dead.

The government released the death and missing tolls weeks after the 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan and several other provinces, but refused until now to give a toll for the number of students. It has been a sensitive issues because of widespread accusations that almost 7,000 classroom crumbled because of slipshod construction methods or because building codes were ignored.

No reason was given for the release of the number now, just days before the one-year anniversary of the disaster that launched an outpouring of grief around China and united the country in a massive rescue effort.

What’s interesting about this is not only that the government would release a number at all, but that the number would be so close to Ai Weiwei’s project’s current total (5,161 as of May 3). And why would they release this information now? There are a few possibilities:

  1. They’ve been conducting their own investigation, which just recently concluded.
    • Probability: Unlikely. Given the resources at the government’s disposal, and the fact that all they released was a number, not names, it seems very improbable it would have taken this long to compile that number unless they only started trying very recently. If they did only start trying recently, one wonders why.
  2. This is an effort to make the government look better in light of the upcoming anniversary.
    • Probability: Very possible. Anniversaries are always important things in China, and having a government figure — especially a government figure that isn’t patently ridiculous — may take some pressure off.
  3. This is a response to Ai Weiwei and other citizen projects attempting to chronicle the deaths of children.
    • Probability: Possible. Ai’s project has attracted some attention and support from Chinese people, and has certainly also attracted some government attention. This could be an attempt to preempt and invalidate Ai’s findings. It draws attention away from him, and thus away from his attempts to make the number real by including names. It also draws attention away from the many violations of justice that have occurred

The NYT piece, shockingly, makes no mention of Ai Weiwei or any of the other civilian projects working on compiling the number of student casualties, and doesn’t really speculate as to why the numbers might have been released now. A TIME story indicates that the government is certainly nervous about the upcoming anniversary, as they’re harassing and jailing reporters in Sichuan. So does Ai Weiwei have anything to do with all this? And how will this affect his project? I feel certain we’ll hear some word from him on the matter via his blog soon, but for now, what do you think?

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0 thoughts on “Is Ai Weiwei Having an Impact?”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. I don’t quite understand why releasing the figure would make the government look good. Unfortunately, whether the government intended to or not, I think the fact that they’ve released this number which is so close to Ai’s (I think the fact that it’s slightly higher is also significant) will pre-empt and invalidate his efforts, and also muddy the injustices he’s faced trying to ascertain the truth.

    For what you’ve said about the fact that the NYT doesn’t mention Ai or any other civilian projects, I went to the article to see the name of the author but it just says “By the Associated Press.” Such a detail, although it seems minute, leads me to believe that this article was written by a person who doesn’t actually speak Chinese and therefore cannot actually, you know, talk to Chinese people, but instead just tracks Chinese media. I have to say that one of the most disappointing moments of American journalism is when they try to write something accurate on another country without actually going to the country in question.

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  3. @ Josh: Totally agreed. As for why it makes the government look good, it makes them look “open” and might silence some internal critics saying they’re trying to cover up student deaths. I guess it doesn’t really make them look good, just reduces how bad they look…to some people.

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  4. By and of itself, it IS a good thing releasing the numbers. I don’t care if the gov’t looks good or bad doing it.

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