He’s one of China’s best known and most provocative artists: Ai Weiwei has launched a new project, one that is bound to set him on a collision course with the Chinese authorities. Almost a year after the devastating earthquake in the south-western province of Sichuan, the artist is trying to end what he calls a cover-up of incompetence and a failure to provide a full account of the thousands of schoolchildren who died.
Ai Weiwei helped design the iconic Olympic stadium in Beijing, the bird’s nest
Nearly 80,000 people died when the powerful quake struck a region as big as South Korea. Among the dead was a disproportionate high number of school children. In many schools the floors pancaked on top of each other burying hundreds of children under massive concrete slabs. Many parents blamed not nature but shoddy construction.
"The foundations of this building were not stable enough," said a mother who lost her only daughter. "Originally this was a two-storey building but when they had a bit of extra money they put another floor on top. The school just crumbled completely."
Almost a year on, the authorities still haven’t published a full account of what went wrong. The number of dead school children is still not known. But now prominent artist Ai Weiwei has pledged to get the truth out.
"We try to find the facts, who died, what’s their name, where they died," says Ai. "To me it’s unbelievable what happened. Maybe you have thousands, maybe ten thousand students died."
Pages of names
Within the past two weeks, Ai Weiwei and his team have published the names of some 2500 children on the internet. The site makes for chilling reading. Pages and pages of names. Behind each of them grieving parents who deserve answers says Ai.
"We have to find every name, not just numbers, who they are is most important, nobody can just ignore it or make a blur. It is just not possible."
The artist knows he’s on to a very sensitive subject. Parents who have questioned the safety of the schools have been harassed and intimidated. An activist in the provincial capital Chengdu who published their demands on the net was arrested last year. Chinese media have been barred from reporting on the issue. Ai Weiwei says if the authorities are not forthcoming with information, people have to get it themselves.
"We have to teach ourselves and teach others how to respond to a situation like this. It’s about civil rights, it’s about how citizens should bare responsibility."
As part of what he calls a citizen’s investigation, Ai and his team have made hundreds of phone calls to the authorities in Sichuan. He has sent a team of volunteers to the region to talk to parents and collect names. But the artist has also struck a cord in the wider community. Tens of thousands of people have left comments on his blog supporting his actions. China’s internet is tightly controlled by the state, but Ai tries not to worry too much that his blog could be shut down any day.
"I couldn’t worry too much about those things, I mean if you are too calculated you cannot do anything. I have to move ahead and trust my judgement. I always have to act, to test out, to see and understand what kind of world I am in."
So far, the authorities have not intervened. But as the anniversary of the May 12 quake approaches, the debate about what caused the death of thousands of children is likely to get more intense.