With his bushy salt-and-pepper hair, scraggly goatee and bohemian airs, Ai Weiwei doesn't fit the mold of earnest human-rights campaigner. But the 52-year-old Chinese artist has made the cause of documenting every child killed in last May's massive earthquake in Sichuan his own. Leveraging his position as one of the country's best-known artists he had a hand in designing the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium and is the son of China's most prominent modern poet Ai has managed to help keep the issue of why so many schools collapsed, killing thousands of students, alive.
May 12 marks the first anniversary of the devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake in China's southwest that killed an estimated 86,633 people. In the past year, Beijing has poured billions of dollars into the region's reconstruction, and hundreds of thousands of people who were left homeless after the disaster have found shelter and begun rebuilding their lives. But many parents whose children were killed one year ago today remain incensed about the apparently shoddy construction that led to what some allege were a disproportionate number of schools collapsing. Despite what human-rights activists say has been a campaign of intimidation by the government, including beating and jailing parents to try and keep them silent, one group has continued to press Beijing for details on school construction and the exact number of students killed in the disaster as well as their identities and other details. It's the kind of battle routinely fought all over rural China, pitting powerful local officials and businessmen against ordinary citizens who feel they have been wronged. It's also a struggle that is almost always won by the powers that be. (See pictures of the aftermath of the Sichuan quake.)
But the cause of the earthquake parents has proven different. Not only do the parents continue to have a vast reservoir of sympathy from ordinary Chinese for their plight, they also have Ai Weiwei, an unusual champion whose determination not to let the issue be buried under bureaucratic obfuscations and strong-arming is if anything even greater than their own. On May 5, having steadfastly refused to do so for the past year, authorities released an estimate that 5,335 students died in the quake a concession that was widely viewed as being forced by Ai's unrelenting campaign and the work of scores of volunteers on the ground in the earthquake zone. They have been collecting names, ages and other details of the dead students and relaying them to the courtyard offices in a Beijing suburb where Ai and a staff of 15 work. "I think the government number is incomplete at best," Ai said from his Beijing offices. His staff has come up with a separate number 5,205 which he estimates accounts for about 80% of the actual student death toll. "It only reaffirms our disbelief in the official numbers ... I only feel lucky that we'd started the investigation early enough to know that the government is not telling the truth." (Read a transcript of the full interview with Ai Weiwei.)
Ai's interest in the issue began when he visited the earthquake zone weeks after the event and saw firsthand the suffering of its victims and particularly of those who had lost children. He began to write extensively about the issue on his blog already one of the country's most popular and soon found readers volunteering to help him in an attempt to record the exact number of students who had been killed. It's a project Ai says he will continue until "we find the last name, or I am dead." The way things are going, it's most likely to be the latter. Even if Ai does finally feel satisfied that every single name has been recorded something Ai himself acknowledges is impossible there will still be work to be done. "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," says Ai. "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." (See pictures of the quake zone six months after the disaster struck.)
Such outspokenness is highly unusual in a nation where dissent usually lands individuals in detention. One salutary example is Tan Zuoren, a 55-year-old environmentalist and writer who was compiling his own parallel list of dead students. On March 28, he was detained by police in his native city of Chengdu in Sichuan province and hasn't been heard of since. About 20 of Ai's volunteers have faced temporary detention and police harassment as they crisscrossed the quake zone interviewing parents and relatives of the dead, according to Ai, and two have been beaten. The volunteers "are constantly being harassed," Ai says. "But ... the parents who are trying to give us the names are being harassed much worse." The volunteers have some protection "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 have completely lost their hope."
Ai's stubborn stance is already having an influence far beyond the narrow issue of the number of dead students. As one 27-year-old volunteer put it, Ai has become a symbol for Chinese concerned about the state of society and its future course. "He makes me realize that it's possible to live as an individual in China," says the native of Liaoning province, who asked for anonymity. "I think the reason why the government is not functioning is because most people have automatically given up their own rights. The role of individuals is to stand up for our basic rights any rights protected by the Chinese constitution, including the right to be informed, the right to supervise and other human rights." It's a sentiment that Ai himself echoes when he talks about what might happen in the coming years in China. "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," he says. "We'll have to clean out all the garbage to have a cleaner world."
Still, Ai is keenly aware of the boundaries of dissent. When asked whether such an office would also look into the alleged abuses in Tibet and the Muslim region of Xinjiang, he acknowledges that that would be "suicidal." In the China of the next decade and further down the road, democracy won't be nearly as important as freedom of information, the artist concludes. "We need a scientific system more than a democratic one. 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," he says.