Ai Weiwei: Q&A On Earthquake Toll Accounting Efforts

Artist, activist, and blogger Ai Weiwei is leading an effort to publish the names of those who died in the May 12 Sichuan earthquake. The action has invited responses from around the globe — and questions from those most nearby, in China. Netizens asked Ai questions ranging from his thoughts on tofu dregs construction to his feelings regarding social responsibility. Ai has responded to dozens of questions found on the posts entitled “做客天涯 (一)” and “做客天涯 (二).” Below is a selection of five of these questions and responses. Translated by CDT:

Question: What was the most difficult part for you in compiling the list of names?

Answer: There were no huge difficulties in making the list because when one has set out to do something, the biggest difficulty is oneself. For us [those creating the list], there is no such problem. We’re willing to do this, and willing to see this situation finally gain clarity no matter what challenges lie ahead.

Well, perhaps our biggest difficulty was that in local checks and interviews, many families were not willing to release their identities; they lived in fear because many others had been imprisoned or threatened. Facing this kind of danger, they didn’t dare to speak the truth, not even simple facts. This was the biggest difficulty we encountered.

Question: In an Internet search, you can see the news heading “Published name list of the 19065 victims in the Wenzhou earthquake, list still incomplete.” It seems that the government has already done similar work to yours. Why are you making a new name list?

Answer: First, we’d seen similar news, so we started there, with the wish that we could get in contact with different government levels and departments. We made over 150 calls, hoping to get the published name list that the Sichuan officials had spoken of. Of course, we weren’t received well; they gave us a very unclear response. To our knowledge, no one is aware of where or how this list was published. There is no such list on official websites.

Our reason for starting was that 300 days had already passed, and we had not yet seen a trustworthy list that had even approximated the given figure. I think that an official list should clearly publish names, ages, cause of death, as well as the location of death and household register. A name is linked to a person as his or her most foundational piece of information. Whether living or dead, that information should be in the government registers, and should be complete at all times. Consequently, I thought that we should do something about this since the government’s handling of the situation was not transparent.

Furthermore, this act is our final token of respect for the deceased. Their names are their most basic level of worth and rights, as well as the most basic kind of recognition. If, after their deaths, they were simply represented as an Arabic numeral, this would have lacked the most fundamental respect. In this situation, facts would be missing. We don’t believe that our society will put an emphasis on acting as citizens, accepting responsibility, or asking the questions that need to be asked in the near future. This is why we have started this “citizen investigation” plan of action.

Question: How was this list obtained?

Answer: The data comes primarily from three methods. The first is collecting already existing data. On the Internet, there are some statistics that were collected by volunteers. Now, another portion of the figures collected comes from our own investigation, such as from speaking to victims’ parents, family, and friends. The third way is that after we announced this “citizens investigation,” after many long weeks, other investigators began giving us their statistics. Our figures mainly come from these three sources. Of course, some data is fragmented, classified as a friend who knows of a certain person, a certain person’s child or relative. We’ve visited the main schools affected by the quake, and we’ve made contact with schools by telephone. We had luck with all but one of our contacts, and were able to get 2 lists of student names. Others expressed that they could not divulge information.

Question: Is the pressure put on the local people the same kind of pressure put on you and your group?

Answer: Local people have received unjust treatment, and those who lost a child have received especially unjust treatment. Society shouldn’t allow this: The real disaster for these people wasn’t just losing a loved one, but also getting society’s cold shoulder and receiving silence when they asked questions, leaving them to feel forgotten. When we inquired about this, a lot of officials said over the phone, “Oh, we’re not publishing a name list because we respect the families’ right to privacy.” We all know that the proletariat have no privacy rights. Families want the outside world to understand them, and to not forget them. Among our contacts with these families, we have conducted several hundred interviews and have a large body of recorded materials. If it’s necessary, we’re willing to publish them. They make up one piece of the record and are a part of the psyche of all those who have been affected by the quake; they are recorded feelings and thoughts. How this record will be used, we don’t know. But they certainly tell some astonishing things.

Question: Mr. Ai, I’d like to ask a question: In doing this work, do you do so with the thought of leaving something to our next generation?

Answer: We can’t look after the next generation, nor can we look after the previous one. We almost can’t look after ourselves.
See also “Names to be remembered” from Global Voices:

The death toll and identity details of school children victims in the May 12 Wenchuan earthquake last year has been sealed in a black box by Chinese government officials, like a state secret. Last December, Ai Wei-wei, a most respectable intellectual and blogger, decided to compile the names of school children who died in the earthquake with a voluntary working team. Up till now, they have collected 2,735 children's names with their parent's contact details. All the information has been uploaded to, an exile website hosted in overseas server, as the online discussion of this civil initiative has been harmonized in China.