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?
问:在做名单时,遇到的最大困难是什么?

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.
做名单的时候,遇到的困难不是很大,因为当一个人下决心要做一件事情的时候,最大的困难是你自己。在我们这里,没有这个问题,我们愿意去做,也愿意这个事情最后很清晰的呈现,无论有多吃力。那么,我们遇到的最大困难是在当地实地考察和采访当中,很多家属不愿意透露他们的身份,他们生活在恐惧之中,因为很多人被监禁,很多人被威胁过。冒着危险,不敢说出真实的、简单的事实,这个是我们遇到的最大的困难。

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?
问:在网上搜索了一下,“汶川地震已公布19065人的名单,遇难人数仍在核查中”的新闻标题。这意味着政府已经在做了相关工作,为什么您还要做一份新的名单呢?

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.
答:第一呢,我们看到了同样的新闻,所以我们从这个新闻开始,我们希望跟四川各级政府或者各个部门联系,我们打了150多个电话,希望能获得四川政府说的公布的19065人的名单,当然对我们得到的待遇一直是推脱、搪塞和不清晰的回答。据我所知,没有任何人知道这19065人的名单在什么地方公布和怎样公布的。在官方网站上,没有出现这个名单。我们这样做的理由是,300多天过去了,我们仍然没有看到一份比较接近这个数字,并令人信服的名单。我觉得这个名单,作为政府部门,应该是很清晰的显示出这些人的姓名,他们的年龄,直接死亡原因,以及他们的遇难地和户籍所在地。姓名是一个关于个人、关于公民的一个基本信息。这个基本的信息,无论是生是死,都是在国家的信息处理下才能完备的,而且应该是在任何时候都是完备的。所以,我觉得对这个事情的调查,是我们认为在官方的不透明的前提下,我们才做的。再一个呢,我们做这个的理由是对死者的一个最低限的尊重,人的价值和人的权利最基本的是他的姓名,这个姓名是我们对一个个体能够认证的一个最小的、最基本的单元。当死亡发生以后,替代这些消失的每一个生命的只是一个阿拉伯数字的话,我觉得在这里缺少对生命最基本的尊重。在这里所有的基本事实都没有,我们认为不太可能在很短期内出现的情况下,作为一个公民,承担责任,问该问的问题,这是社会进步的必要的一个条件。这是我们为什么自发发起“公民调查”的行动动机。

Question: How was this list obtained?
问:名单是如何得到的?

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.
答:数据的主要来源是三种方式。一种是已有的,在网络上存在的统计数据,由于民间的许多志愿者在震后做了一部分的统计;另一部分呢,是我们实地的探访,在和遇难者的家长以及他们的亲友谈话中获得的数据;第三部分,我们宣布了这个“公民调查”以后,很多长期从事调查工作的人提供了他们手中的数据。我们的数据主要是来自这三部分。当然,还有一些零星的,属于朋友知道的某一个人、某一个人的孩子或者是亲戚,他们转来的信息。我们走访过主要震区的一些学校,我们和学校接触是通过电话来完成的,在所有的接触中,我们只在一个学校的校长那里有一点运气,获得过两个学生的名单,其他的都表示这是不可以泄露的一件事情。

Question: Is the pressure put on the local people the same kind of pressure put on you and your group?
问:这种当地居民的压力同时也是对你和你的团队的一种压力吗?

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.
答:当地居民受到的不公正的待遇,尤其是死亡儿童的家属受到的不公正待遇,是社会不应该允许的,因为他们的真正灾难,不仅仅是来自死去了亲人,而是来自整个社会的冷漠、整个社会拒绝回答他们的问题,认为他们已经被遗忘。我们问询的时候,很多政府官员在电话中,他们说,“噢,我们不公布名单是因为我们要尊重家属的隐私权”。我们都知道,无产阶级是没有隐私权的,家属们是非常迫切希望外界了解他们,不要忘记他们。在我们接触到的家属当中,我们做了几百个家属的采访,我们有大量的录像资料,如果需要的话,我们愿意公布所有的资料。它是一段记录,一段对一个地震时期的地方的人的一个心理、情感、思考的记录。这个记录怎么用,我们还不知道,但是它确实是一些令人震惊的事实,是不可想象的。

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?
问:艾先生,我问一个问题,你做这个工作的时候是不是想留给我们后代一些什么?

Answer: We can’t look after the next generation, nor can we look after the previous one. We almost can’t look after ourselves.
答:我们还顾不到下一代,我们也顾不到上一代,我们几乎顾不到自己。
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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 bulloger.com, an exile website hosted in overseas server, as the online discussion of this civil initiative has been harmonized in China.