As my colleague Ling mentions below, we have a story out to mark the anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake that focuses on the efforts of the artist Ai Weiwei to record an accurate toll of school children who died.
Though we have spoken to him again a few times since, the main interview was done in mid April. For those interested, it contains considerably more detail on his thoughts about civil society, freedom of information, democracy, the rule of law and other similar issues in China. Here’s the transcript after the jump:
SE: How did you get interested in the project in the first place? How long ago was it?
Ai: During the earthquake period, I went to the location to see what was going on. I kept a blog constantly questioning the problems, which relate to not clearly releasing information about how many people died, who are dead, how many of them were students, what are their names, and how many deaths are related to the collapse of school buildings. You keep waiting and waiting… and one day you think, there is no hope. Why don’t we just do it ourselves? So we first sent our documentary team to make videos and interviewed 300 parents. Then we found that this is incredible material, not only about the students but also about how they are treated after the earthquake. A lot of it was related to the deaths of students, the payment issue, housing issues, and the most frustrating issue is that they are really neglected. If they asked questions about the architecture (and construction of the collapsed buildings,) they were often harassed, beaten and detained. Some have even been locked up seven times. Completely outrageous. So you realize that the earthquake is just one disaster, (for those families) there will be much bigger disasters later because they lost the whole future. Then they are facing the local government, which completely sees them as nothing, nobody. There are many sad things that happened to them. I said maybe we should start a citizen investigation, so I put it [the idea] on my blog, which had a fairly broad readership. A few hundred volunteers said they wanted to join and support this. I was very encouraged by them and volunteers spread across various areas from hospitals to schools. They kept sending back names [of the students] and writing down diaries of what happened there. So far we’ve got around 5,000 names with solid information of the students.
SE: How will you know when the project is over?
Ai: Yeah, it’s going to be a long time… Yesterday (April 13,) the government officially announced they are going to do this openly. In this Human Rights Action Plan, they have one line that says this has to be registered. But still they didn’t say whether it’s about the names or numbers. To me, numbers are not enough, because the names are related to which schools collapsed. We want to do it till the last name is found, which is almost impossible we’ve come to realize, as many students were buried in very rough conditions. Half the parents we interviewed have never seen their children’s bodies because they were buried, taken away without the knowledge of the parents. Many of them just assumed their children were dead and some even believe that they [their children] just disappeared.
SE: So do you think that was an accomplishment, that the government put in that one line in the human rights statement?
Ai: Well, I think it’s a very strange feeling, because we are always being questioned on why we need those names. We’ve made 200 phone calls to the provincial government, local police offices, and several other bureaus, to ask if they have the names and if they would share them with the public, because a natural disaster is a public matter. But they all refused, and said no, no, no, it’s top national secret. Why do you want it? Are you a spy for the United States or some foreign country, trying to use that information again our country? That’s why we decided to do it ourselves.
SE: Why is the local government being so resistant? Is it local or central, or some kind of a combination?
Ai: I can’t really tell. On the one hand, the central government really wants the local government to be more open. But at the same time, the Chinese media refuse to talk about it. We have a constitution which already guarantees all those rights, but after so many years none of them is applied. So I really doubt how much can be applied out of this new regulation. This is too difficult because the whole structure is so solid. And why are they so resistant? That’s what I really want to find out. After collecting information of the students, we can analyze things that are related to the so-called “doufuzha” or (badly constructed) unqualified buildings. I think policy mistakes are more important, because the government always try to hide small problems, which will become much larger problems. For instance, last summer, a young guy killed six policemen because he hadn’t reached justice. Then the whole judicial system got involved: the court, police, supreme court. And in Beijing, they later put the guy’s mother in a mental hospital. It’s completely outrageous, illegal. But they are not just a few bad apples. Maybe every apple has its problems. That’s why they are just relentlessly doing that.
SE: I know that an environmentalist who was separately doing the same as you (Tan Zuoren) got arrested in late March…
Ai: Well, it was when he was arrested that I realized he was doing the same thing almost under the same name. He was arrested because… You know in Sichuan, the local government can be very tough. If I were in Sichuan, I could have been arrested many times. Even the police in very remote towns there can pronounce my name. They would tell my volunteers, say hello to Ai Weiwei, but he’s not welcome here, don’t let us see him here. It’s so strange. On the other hand, the parents whose children have been killed, who have been mistreated, they all know my number. They often sent me photos, and told us to help them, because nobody else can.
SE: In the case of Tan Zuoren, he basically just disappeared, right?
Ai: He disappeared, and I think he has been mistreated. I don’t know… Under this new (human rights) plan he deserves better treatment or should be released. We’ll watch. Now it’s become very urgent for this country to announce that it still value fairness and justice as much as possible at this stage, because people have completely lost their illusions.
SE: So this is kind of a test case you are in…
Ai: Of course, every case is a test case. They can provide better answers to tell people, yes we are sincere, we are really trying to make this nation a better place for everybody.
SE: Isn’t there a vested interest in the central government, too? You always hear about the divide between the central and local governments. When I interview peasants, they always say, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are okay, only local government is bad. But in this case, the extent of the coverup seems as though it can’t just be the local government.
Ai: People often tell me I’m naive… But I can tell from the facts that central and local governments are both facing injustice here. You can’t say that because you are the central government, you don’t know about the injustice, you can simply ignore it. I think everybody has to take the responsibility. I think nobody should be excused.
SE: What about yourself? Because of this project, Tan Zuoren has been arrested. You think your position is different because you are outside of Sichuan?
Ai: I can’t answer questions like this because I have a lot of different speculation. People say because you are well-known (so you are protected). It doesn’t make much sense. I just hope there’ll be much more conscience about where and how this society should function. It’s very hard to say why they didn’t do this.
The party/government should clearly state the mistakes. I mean, you have to be sincere. You have to tell people yes we are poor and we have built the schools in a wrong fashion. We’ll have to admit the mistakes and check on other buildings to avoid future damage. I think people can accept and understand it. But hiding the facts, I think it’s completely irrational.
SE: But it’s the characteristic of bureaucracy, especially the communist party bureaucracy, not to mention mistakes. So it’s not surprising this is happening, is it?
Ai: It’s not surprising at all. But still, it’s all about political bargaining. You know, people completely distrust them. In many cases, they are not on the side of justice or fairness… So what kind of state we are in?
SE: I asked earlier about when you think the project is going to end. You mentioned names and numbers, but you want an explanation as well…
Ai: Once we find the names and numbers, I think a scientific study should be done to study how the schools collapsed, and how the students died. It’s not a difficult task. If anybody tries to hide it, it is a crime to the people and the nation. This time I don’t think anybody can let it go. Well, I’m naive, maybe.
SE: What about your volunteers in Sichuan? Has anybody been harassed or detained?
Ai: There have been about 20 cases of arrest, and two volunteers have been beaten. And they all have been illegally searched, detained in the police station for a few hours to over 10 hours. And they are constantly being harassed. (It’s) severe violation of their human rights. But that’s not the complete story. The story is that the parents who are trying to give us the names, they are also being harassed. (Their situations are) much worse, because we are guests from Beijing. Because Ai Weiwei is famous and he can make some noise. So they treat us very politely. But to those parents, they completely lost their hope.
SE: Do you think at some point you’ll become enough of an irritant to the government that they will arrest you or try to intimidate you, too?
Ai: I think my life has always been intimidated as long as there are people who don’t believe in liberty and humanity…
SE: So you are not worried about what you are doing? You just go on?
Ai: Sometimes you don’t have much choice. Of course, you can become another nation’s citizen, but I don’t want to. I was born here. I speak Chinese… I’m already half a century old, so let me finish here.
SE: How much long do you see yourself doing this project?
Ai: I tell everybody, till the last person is found or till I die.
SE: How will you know if the last person is found?
Ai: It’s not possible. That means I’ll keep asking the same question. As the police say, this Ai Weiwei is crazy, he just keeps asking the same question again and again. That’s why I am here.
SE: You are not doing any other work at the moment?
Ai: I still have to meet deadlines of a few museum shows here and there. I have architecture designs. I have to curate other shows, and also publish books and write my blog. But 90% of my energy are now put in blogging, which somebody says is like social sculpture… I think the internet is such a wonderful thing for China, anyway.
SE: Have some of your blog posts been recently blocked now?
SE: How do you expect things to go from now? Do you think you’ll be able to continue your work?
Ai: It’s so difficult (to foresee…) Because this nation is not ruled by law, it really depends on who said what, for what reasons. So you can’t really guarantee your safety. Actually I don’t think anybody is protected.
SE: But you are going to concentrate on this…?
Ai: I have an illusion that maybe I’ll quit all my art and other things, and just build a huge office that can contain 5,000 people doing nothing but investigations. We’ll have our investigation empire.
Ai: And we’ll have to clean out all the garbage to have a cleaner world.
SE: Is that also naive?
Ai: I don’t think so. You want to have clean air, clean surroundings, and to have people behave in a contemporary modern manner… I think this is needed. It’s just a matter of time, you know, do i have the time to do this. I think anything else can stop me from doing that.
SE: I’m curious about this because there are publications, like Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend), trying to do this, and their editors got fired…
Ai: Yes, because they are in the system, but I’m an individual. I’m not in any systems. My system is my conscience. They all have too much to lose. I don’t have much to lose. My life, that’s it. The world will not be affected when I’m not here.
SE: Your family?
Ai: They are fine. They know me, so…
SE: You’ll probably get a reaction sooner or later.
Ai: It depends. I’ve always wanted to see the world with an innocent eye, even though I’ve been mistreated and beaten. I’ve always wanted to respect my enemies.
SE: (That project) might be one step too far, even for an individual…
Ai: I always tell them (the authorities) that if you do that (investigate abuse, corruption etc), we won’t have to. It’ll save us a lot of energy. But if we don’t do it, we automatically become part of you, which we don’t want to. They are forcing us into this difficult situation, which I don’t like.
SE: You criticized the lack of the rule of law. But isn’t it the nature of the Chinese society right now that vested interests look after their own, the urban middle classes, why are they not doing the things you and your volunteers are doing? Are they partly guilty, too?
Ai: It’s very hard to find out what the old generation is thinking about. They just don’t have spirit. I have great hope for the so-called 80’s generation. They are innocent, neglected by education. They only get their knowledge from the internet. They are the really the generation who will fight corruptions…. True, many say they are selfish, but I think as long as they have passion, and believe in themselves, they’ll grow.
SE: Are your volunteers mostly the younger generation?
Ai: Many of them were born in the 80’s and they are so impressive. They would say, ‘I will come tomorrow, I quit my job today.’ I’m really impressed by them. The young girls and boys, they just walked directly into the police stations in Sichuan, and said, tell me which schools collapsed, which students died. Some of them have been arrested 3 or 4 times, and they said, now I’ve found the reason to love this country, I really love it now. I told them to come back, because they must be very tired after 3 or 4 days. But they said, we are ok… They are really tough.
SE: When you said (the volunteers told you) “now I’ve found the reason to love this country,” what is the reason?
Ai: I think when they encountered such resistance, they start to bear responsibilities. They want the truth to be out. Before they just didn’t know what happened. They were completely in their own world.
SE: How many people do you have down there now?
Ai: We are shifting, but we have a few dozen people there. That’s enough. We get help from people whom we’ll never know. They just secretly sent us information. They (the volunteers) constantly change phone numbers… Some volunteers had already been there for one year before we started this, doing social studies and research…
SE: Will you being going down for the anniversary?
Ai: To me, everyday is the anniversary. I don’t think that one particular day is important. We need to remember it everyday till the complete truth comes out.
SE: Can you go down there without getting into trouble with the police?
Ai: I’m still wondering if should go there, but I don’t just want things to be dramatic, but to have a chance to talk to them. People automatically act and response, which makes this country very dangerous. Because we are a nation lacking in belief, lacking in ideology, lacking in religion…
SE: Apart from yourself, how many people are working on the project here in Beijing?
Ai: There are maybe 15 people in this base…
SE: If you built this huge office with 5,000 people, is your investigation going to include Xinjiang and Tibet?
Ai: (laugh…) Suicidal, right? I don’t have suicidal instincts. I haven’t thought anything about that. Time will tell. We are living in the 21 century. Things are different.
SE: Some people say that the earthquake is a turning point of Chinese civil society.
Ai: It doesn’t look like so…
SE: But from your experience, it seems people would love to volunteer…
Ai: I think the citizens in this nation are going through self-education. They are learning from… Freedom of information is the most important… It’s going to be tough generation once they (can freely consume information.) Nobody can shake them.
SE: And you expect in 10 years, the result of their toughening up will…
Ai: I used to be naive enough to (expect things to change in) 5 years. Now I believe things will change in 10 years. I believe in the people here. There are wonderful, nice people here. So why not? They deserve a good life.
SE: Does that involve the freedom of information..? Do all the parts have to go together? More democracy, more freedom of information, more transparency?
Ai: Everything has to go together. But the most important is that we need a scientific system more than a democratic one. That’s even better. How to be scientific, and acknowledge the truth. It doesn’t matter… The Communist Party can be in power for the next 100 years, but we have to question them, investigate them… It doesn’t matter as long as we can make them bear the responsibility.