Guests from All Corners of the Earth
Posted on March 24, 2009
Question: What is the greatest difficulty you’ve encountered while working on the list of names?
Ai Weiwei: Once a person is determined to do something, you become your own greatest difficulty. We don’t have that problem; we are willing to do this, willing to see this situation manifest some clarity in the end, no matter how difficult. Many people are not willing to reveal their identity when we investigate and interview locally; they are living in fear, and many have been incarcerated or threatened. People don’t dare to speak the truth or simple facts, and this is the greatest difficulty we have encountered.
Q: Online searches reveal the headline: “Wenchuan earthquake has disclosed a list of 19,065 names; the death toll is still being investigated.” This means that the government is doing similar work. Why do you still want to create a new list of names?
AWW: We saw the same news clip, and started from there, making contact with various government offices in Sichuan. We made more than 150 phone calls, hoping that we could obtain a list of the 19,065 names. All we obtained was procrastination, stalling, and unclear answers. Not a single person knows where this list of names was published or how it was published, and the list has never appeared on any official Web sites. More than three hundred days have passed, and we have yet to see a figure that inspires people’s belief. The government should clearly display the names of these people, their ages, and the cause of their deaths, as well as the place they were killed and the area in which they were registered. This kind of basic information, no matter in life or in death, can only be completed under the auspices of the government, and it should be readily available at any moment. We undertook this investigation under the premise of official opacity.
Our reasoning behind this investigation is to achieve the very lowest level of respect for the deceased. The most fundamental worth and civil right of any person is their right to their name; this name is the smallest, most basic unit that helps us attest to an individual’s existence. When we die, if all that supplants one’s lost life is an Arabic numeral, life is lacking in basic dignity. Under the circumstances, there are no basic facts, and they won’t appear in the near future. As citizens, we should shoulder responsibility, ask the questions that should be asked—these are necessary steps in social progress. This was our motivation for launching the Citizen Investigation.
Q: May we ask, Mr. Ai, what are your considerations in demanding the public disclosure of a list of names of the deceased? What is the significance in making this kind of information public?
AWW: The earthquake was a public incident; accounting for the number of dead, compiling a list, and publishing information about public incidents are the responsibility and duty of the government. Names are one of our most fundamental privileges, the names of the dead are attached to the most basic significance and dignity; openly publishing all information related to public incidences will enhance government transparency, and will likewise contribute to greater government credibility and the public right to knowledge. A public with no right to information is a public that won’t shoulder any responsibility, and by the same token, a ruling government with no transparency will never realize fairness and justice.
Q: How many people are working on the Citizen Investigation?
AWW: There are more than ten people working on this together. We started working more than two months ago. Earlier on, we went to Sichuan, and I’ve been concerned with the matter 369 ever since the earthquake. After going public with the Citizen Investigation, there were a few hundred volunteers who applied and sent feedback and who were willing to join in the efforts. This gave us confidence to do the job well, and thoroughly.
Q: How did you obtain this list of names?
AWW: There are three major information channels. One is preexisting: the Internet holds a wealth of statistics, and many civil volunteers did portions of statistical reporting after the earthquake. Another portion was field visits, information that was garnered in visits with the relatives of the deceased, and the third portion was from investigators who had been doing long-term research in the area and who provided statistics after we went public with the Citizen Investigation.
Q: According to your knowledge, what was the ratio of tofu-dregs engineering among the total number of schools?
AWW: At present, we are not discussing the issue of tofu-dregs engineering. This is an issue that needs technical evaluation. I think that the emergence of facts is unequivocal, the number of deceased is unequivocal; it is necessary to first complete the list of names, and this can be used as a base from which to investigate other facts. As this list of names becomes clearer, other issues will gradually become elucidated. This is also the reason why I believe local governments don’t disclose these names or procrastinate with their own investigations.
Q: Mr. Ai, in the process of this investigation, what do you personally believe is the real reason that the government doesn’t investigate the persons responsible for tofu-dregs engineering? Is it because they are implicated in the crime, and no one can shed responsibility, or some other internal affair? Already, nothing could be stupider than allowing the entire system to pick up the bill for a portion of corruption.
AWW: In the numerous public incidents last year, we all witnessed the reality of an entire system absolving itself from picking up the bill for any portion of the corruption. This is the enormous cost necessary to realize social change in China today.
Q: In our current circumstances, we are faced with numerous natural and man-made disasters. What should common people like us do? How can we lighten the losses suffered in disasters?
AWW: A new era of marked by globalization and information has arrived. This new era will pose new demands on citizens’ self-realization and responsibility, because this era has brought with it new possibilities.
Q: Recently there have been preparations to build a temple near Beichuan Middle School, and a call for monks to release the souls of the children and other victims from purgatory. I think that this is extremely unnecessary, and I’d like to know your opinion on the matter. What will the government achieve with this?
AWW: The Beichuan government seems like one that can’t tell left from right. Han Han already went with his luxury SUVs; now they’re working on more bad ideas, plans to turn the disaster zone into a tourist site, making things seem mystical, and using all kinds of means to seize peasant land. They truly are obsessed to the point of blindness.
Q: Do the pressures placed on the local residents also pressure you and your team?
AWW: The local residents have been treated unfairly, and the families of the deceased children have been treated especially unjustly. Society should not abide this, because the true disaster comes not only from having lost loved ones, but also from society’s indifference, the refusal to answer their questions; they have already been forgotten. When we are making inquiries, many government employees say on the phone, “Out of respect for the bereaved families’ right to privacy, we will not publicly disclose the list of names.” We all know the proletariat has no right to privacy; the families urgently desire that the outside world could understand them, and won’t forget them. We have interviewed hundreds of families, and have a large amount of recorded data; if necessary, we are willing to make all this information public. It is a record, a psychological, emotional, and intellectual record of the people living in the place where the earthquake occurred. There are indeed some shocking facts; it’s unimaginable.
Q: What were your investigation methods? Aside from mailings and telephone calls, did you have people on the ground visiting families? How can this list of names be verified for authenticity?
AWW: There are various sources of the information. The collection times and their reliability could all potentially have problems. Owing to the fact that this was not a systematic collection, there could always be problems, and if you want to avoid such problems, you must be very strict, and a qualified public organization should actually be in charge. Doing a citizen investigation is extremely difficult, but although this is true, this is a kind of effort, and we refuse to wait, we reject procrastination and evasion. Hopefully, in the end we will have a more complete list of names, even more detailed information. We hope that the dignity of the deceased can be restored bit by bit.
Q: Confronted with such a bone-chilling list, do you have any regrets?
AWW: The list isn’t our ultimate goal. When these children have been forgotten, they will truly be dead, and forgotten children, no matter where they are, can never be happy again. So I believe this is the responsibility of the living toward the dead; if it is not complete, the souls of the living could never be complete. Then, the incompletion of this list explains why the souls of the Chinese people are like tofu-dregs engineering.
Q: What would you most like to say to the parents of the deceased children?
AWW: I would like to tell them that they are a part of society, their pain is the pain of our entire society, and we can hear them. Society has an unshakable responsibility to them, they have already lost too much, and we should not let them wait any longer, or have any more regrets.
Q: Are we memorializing just to memorialize; shouldn’t there be an investigation into deeper causes?
AWW: Memorializing has its specific function, including the promotion of justice and washing away the injustices suffered by the dead.
Q: Mr. Ai, what do you think is the root cause of Chinese people’s lying and moral decay, and do you have any hope for China’s future?
AWW: When the cost of speaking the truth exceeds that of telling lies, naturally it will be an era where evil money eliminates the good. From today onward, if everyone told the truth, the times would change.
Q: Will you persist in completing this Citizen Investigation to the very end? What are you feeling when during your investigations you are confronted with these [parents of] children who perished for well-known reasons? As you proceed with the investigation, are there powers trying to thwart you? If so, how will you deal with them? Will your investigation achieve the results you are looking for? What are your expected results?
AWW: If I’m still alive on any given day, this investigation will proceed yet another day. If one student is forgotten, humanity will be cast with shame. Clarifying facts, accepting responsibility, this is the reality that no living person can evade. I’ve never encountered any obvious attempts at thwarting, even though many things have proved disappointing. No one can obstruct the next innocent plan; I refuse to become one of the casualties. My investigation has already had some unanticipated effects: the children are remembered, there is concern for the families, society has demanded basic justice and rights, and there is refusal of the ghastly tofu-dregs engineering.
Q: Is the tension in Chinese interpersonal relations due to a lack of faith? Is China’s traditional feudal thinking the root cause of the contempt for the lives of ordinary people?
AWW: The sorest point about a lack of faith is that people lose the ability to act; the most tragic reality about losing one’s ability to act is losing the ability to perceive.
Q: We all know that the catastrophic Sichuan earthquake is related at least a little to humans; how can we avoid this? How will we settle scores with certain people? How can we achieve the exposure of misconduct and corruption and ensure that those responsible receive the punishment they deserve?
AWW: Question responsibility. Use all of our efforts to interrogate our government, suspect them, supervise them. Punishment is not the most important; rob them of the potential to misbehave and be corrupt; establish open, fair, and impartial mechanisms, reject lies, reject CCTV.
Q: Mr. Ai, I’d like to ask, are you doing this job because you want to leave something for the next generation?
AWW: We don’t have time to think about the next generation, and we can’t think about the previous generation. We barely have enough time to take care of ourselves.
Q: Speaking of the list of names, officials were never willing to publicly disclose the names of the dead children, only offering a figure. Every time something happens, it’s the same, they don’t give specific names, and when we try to collect them, there are obstructions. I want to know what is the meaning behind these official actions?
AWW: Habitual concealment is the result of habitual corruption and degeneracy.
Q: Hello Mr. Ai, you say “people are living in fear, and many have been incarcerated or threatened. People don’t dare to speak the truth or simple facts.” I want to know, what kind of facts are these, and why have people been incarcerated and threatened?
AWW: The interrogation of suffering families could only be a result of one of the following reasons:
1. There was a problem with the stability of the schools; how the children died and why they died are questions that the local officials have yet to answer clearly.
2. A problem with the efficiency of rescue efforts.
3. A problem with post-earthquake compensation and recompense.
4. Problems of post-earthquake relocation and future living conditions.
All families who have raised questions have been threatened and coerced to varying degrees, some even having been incarcerated or detained.
Q: Mr. Ai, hello, I’m a graphic designer working in Shandong. Is there anything we can help with, do you need volunteers?
AWW: Start now; you can start designing a new national flag!
Q: Why hasn’t the so-called mainstream media had any news from the families who lost their children? Don’t these families have anything they want to say, to express their grieving and sorrows?
AWW: There is no mainstream media in China, only dead media.
Q: Hello Mr. Ai, I would like to ask why, in the face of natural disaster, governmental departments would want to conceal the number of the dead? Also, is your collection of these names of the departed really just to express your respect for the departed, or do you have some other goal?
AWW: All of my goals are other goals.
Q: Hello Mr. Ai. I would like to express support for the efforts you initiated. But, when choosing between ways to memorialize the dead and giving hope to the living, which one do you think is more important? I’m located in the disaster area, and from what I see, many people in the disaster-hit areas have absolutely no hope! Thank you!
AWW: For the living, memorializing the dead is more important. For the dead, it is more important to give hope to the living.
Q: Sir, the times are changing, the people are awakening, the government is stagnant, or even regressing, and interest groups would never hand over their rights. In an era when citizens’ rights and interests and ethnic interests can be sold off at potentially any moment, how do you suppose we can stimulate the government to reflect on itself, assess, and make progress?
AWW: Change could potentially seek a new logical path; let’s move forward and see.
Q: While the Americans have elected Obama to office, China claims itself as having the most advanced social system in the world. Do you think it’s the people’s fault we are still playing court politics?
AWW: We could say that all mistakes are the people’s mistakes, because our government is the People’s Government.
Q: Mr. Ai, Hello! I’ve had a suspicion ever since the earthquake, and want to ask: as per your knowledge, roughly what proportion of the deceased (or missing) in the earthquake do adolescents account for? I’ve heard that more than 90 percent of the schools collapsed in the areas hardest hit by the earthquake, is this fact? There are also rumors that the entire (or a large majority of the) next generation was lost in certain areas, is this so? According to your data, what is the ratio of the schools that collapsed in the earthquake? And what is the ratio like for other types of buildings that collapsed?
AWW: This is precisely our question; one day we will have a clear answer.
Q: I would like to ask, Mr. Ai, in your understanding, have local government officials greedily stashed the contributions of the people of the entire world?
AWW: If I said there was no corruption, no one would believe it. If I said everyone was corrupt, no one would believe it.
Q: First, I support Mr. Ai Weiwei. Secondly, I’d like to return to matters of monetary donations: could you say something about your personal thoughts on, for example, allotment of funds, etc.?
AWW: Monetary contributions are only one half; who you give them to and how they will use it is the other half.
Q: “Many people are not willing to reveal their identity when we investigate and interview locally, they are living in fear; and many have been incarcerated or threatened. People don’t dare to speak the truth or simple facts, and this is the greatest difficulty we have encountered.” Why are they living in fear? Why would they be incarcerated and threatened, and who is doing this to them?
AWW: The families of Dujiangyan who have met with disaster tell us that if they discuss any of their suspicions related to the dead or the tofu-dregs engineering, they face the possibility of being laid off and losing their life security. In the hardest hit areas, many heads of families have experienced being detained or incarcerated. The primary task of public security and stabilizing offices is to prevent the families from talking about deceased relatives.
Q: When we want to do something, we wonder what we can do. There are times when, other than venting our frustration, we just feel that our powers are so miniscule. Mr. Ai, please give us some advice.
AWW: Let’s all vent our frustration together.
Q: Please, Mr. Ai, is it worth abandoning everything to pursue life’s truths? History is always playing tricks on us; you go in through one door but come out through another. At one time they gave consideration to the common man, but the one-time advocates of the proletariat ultimately leaned toward despotism. Many people who once gave their consideration to the rulers, the advocates of the ruling class, have now actually become endorsers of civil rights. I remember Bertrand Russell once said: “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” For the moment we won’t discuss right or wrong, but I’d like to ask Mr. Ai, if we abandon everything in search of life’s truths, can we arrive at the desired harbors?
AWW: When you pursue truth, you have already decided not to abandon everything.
Q: Social contradictions today are acute; some online friends are breeding dissatisfaction with the government, and if they want to grasp onto a minor social problem, they use democracy or freedom of expression to attack and accuse the government.
AWW: The leaders must take responsibility. If they are too tired, or frustrated, then find someone else.
Q: Mr. Ai, how do you view the “small portion” of youth who have lost hope in the nation and society?
AWW: Finding hope in society is an affirmation of life. This is a larger principle.
Q: Thank you for using the power of your influence to speak out. During the earthquake, many parents lost their only child, triggering reconsideration of the compulsory one-child policy. Actually, I was once a supporter of the policy, and have finally realized there are so many kinds of immoral and inhuman activities, such as infanticide, compulsory birth control, and tubal ligations. But it’s strange; very few people have voiced their objection to such serious inhuman incidents. What do you think of this?
AWW: Family planning should be the decision of the parents.
Q: I continue to support Mr. Ai, and I would like to ask if you are worried about where the contributions for the relief efforts are going?
AWW: The whereabouts of relief contributions and the whereabouts of funds are like water in the same river.
Q: First, what is the real reason for the delayed release of a list of victims’ names? Is the low efficiency of workers only a superficial reason? What is the root reason, and who is afraid of these real reasons on a deeper lever? Second, not even the blood and tears of the disaster can stimulate reflection, self-criticism, or even investigation and punishment; the celebratory voices praising the success in the rescue efforts are drowning out all the others. Why are such wicked flowers always flourishing on our soil?
AWW: When a people reject truth, they have already chosen death.
“Guests from All Corners of the Earth” was an online interview Ai Weiwei held with the general public on March 23, 2009, to address issues raised by the Citizen Investigation.
TRANSLATED BY LEE AMBROZY