China: A citizen campaign to reveal the forgotten dead


The police rushing down from the car with a sub machine gun at hand shouted at me, ‘put your hands up, freeze!’ It was so astonishing a scene that I had only seen at American blockbuster.

In his blog, Li Peifeng so recalled his encounter with the police in Si-chuan. No smuggling, no robbery, all he was doing is simple – he was volunteering. But his story is no less exciting and hair-raising than any thriller. He was chased by Chinese police.

A covered fact

As the anniversary of Si-chuan Earthquake, the devastating disaster that claimed over 80000 on May, 12 last year is approaching, China has to pick up the heavy, heartrending topic again. But for many parents whose children were buried in rubble, their nightmare has never gone away for the entire year.

The government failed to publish a complete list of the victims in Si-chuan earthquake. There are only cold numbers of death toll while their names, age, and reasons of death remain unknown. In particular, the names of student victims are seen as a top secret.

Los Angles Times explained,

The possibility that corruption might have been involved in the building of schools is the most politically sensitive aspect of the earthquake post-mortem.

According to an official announcement last year, over 6000 students died at the earthquake. Schools collapsed at an extraordinary high rate compared to other buildings standing nearby. In Beichuan, the county middle school had its two floors sunk into the ground.

Netizens and bloggers, scrutinizing pictures of the relic, found that the wreckage exposed the scarcity of steel girders, which should have been a major supporting component.

Premier Wen Jiabao, inspecting the area devastated, has avowed to tell the public who should be responsible for the shoddy works. But the promise has not yet been fulfilled. Though the recently released National Human Rights Action Plan has emphasized on a state effort to register names of victims, Blogger Ai Xiaoming felt frustrated,


An year has passed since the earthquake but now, people are so sorry to see that there has never been an official report about the actual quality of school buildings that collapsed. The public has neither access to the detailed reason why a school collapsed, nor information about whether anyone is doing any quality inspection.


What role does human related factors play in this natural disaster? Is there corruption involved? The parents of victim students need an answer, but the government pushed them away. Not even has the list of dead students been released.

The blogger also noted that the public propaganda had already set the tone about who is to blame:

四川地方媒体数家报纸在2008年6月25日同一天登出了同样内容的报道,标题为 《地震是毁房罪魁 幸存者应理性看未来>。

Several newspapers in Si-chuan published one article on the same day (25, June, 08), titled ‘Earthquake as chief culprit, survivors should look ahead rationally’.

Citizen volunteers, a vulnerable new force


The police in Jiang You city used to bring my photo to a hotel and told the landlord that ‘the man is a criminal. Inform us once you see him’. I don't want them to send me to somewhere that I have no chance to know unless I am there.

—–Volunteer Yang Licai , ‘investigation diary’.

What the government has failed to accomplish, citizens were going to take over. Ai Weiwei, a Beijing artist known for co-designing the “Bird's Nest” Olympic stadium, launched a small project that sends volunteers to Si-chuan for investigation. They knocked at the doors one after another, visited families with victims, and tried to interview school officials.

In this way, the volunteers have managed to detail as many as 6000 names of dead students.

However, it was so costly a process. Ai Weiwei's predecessor Tan Zuoren was the first victim of the government's effort to prevent such investigation. The Los Angles Times reported,

Tan Zuoren, a literary editor and environmentalist who was creating an archive of children killed in collapsing schools, was arrested in March 2009 on charges of subverting state authority, according to Amnesty International. It said his dog was stabbed and his computer stolen in a pattern of harassment leading to his arrest.

Tan Zuoren's project kicked off in February. He appealed to people on the internet and mustered an army of self-organized volunteers. Asia Times reported that


Tan's good friend, Si-chuan writer Ran Yunfei told him,’ You are a Don Quixote with beard. Some self-claimed clever men say ironically that you are fighting against a windmill, but you keep doing what you believe in and insist on your cause.’
When he was arrested only his 15-year-old daughter was at home with him. She said, ‘4, 5 people broke in, some in uniform, others not. They showed their IDs, ransacked the house, and then took my dad away. My dad said not a single word.’

Ai Weiwei is determined to finish Tan's plan. In his blog, he published a batch of phone records that noted down how officials turned down his request of a complete list with names and schools of the killed students. The verbal fights between Ai and staff from a variety of departments are sometimes bitterly amusing. In most cases, Ai was redirected to some other bureaus. 150 phone calls were noted down. But no concrete answer was given

Later, Ai launched his long-term project. Hepublished a notice about his campaign on his blog


Since 15, Dec,2008 we have started our investigation on student victims in Si-Chuan earthquake. Time after time our requests to gain access into the victim list were refused. Therefore, we collected clues online and marched to earthquake zone for field research. We hope we can compile a list of victim students before the anniversary of the disaster. We refuse death, respect life and bear the condolence in memory of the departed.


  • Xushi

    Wow. I’ve been waiting for some follow through on this topic.

    It’s hardly a surprise that there was no follow through on this issue.
    Forgetfulness is practically a virtue these days.

    For instance, although Obama reaffirmed
    the Freedom of Information Act, saying
    “The government should not keep information confidential
    merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure”,
    he’s still hoping to avoid prosecution of
    Bush administration officials who promoted torture.

    The crucial question is whether the inevitable
    and on-going attempts to cover-up
    will contaminate the central government or
    if they will honestly promote justice.

  • […] China’s economic boom. This past year, human rights activist reported that the government harassed citizens seeking more information about, or trying to publicize, the […]

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