March 20, 2009
Artist Defies Web Censors in a Rebuke of China
By DAVID BARBOZA
SHANGHAI — One of China's most prominent and provocative artists is
challenging the government to end what he calls its cover-up of
incompetence in managing the response to an earthquake last May in
Sichuan Province that killed more than 80,000 people.
The artist, Ai Weiwei, 51, who helped design the Olympic National
Stadium known as the Bird's Nest, is creating a sensation in China by
posting angry commentaries about the quake rescue efforts on his
In the online postings, Mr. Ai criticizes the government's management
of the disaster response and chides officials for still not having
provided a full accounting of schoolchildren's deaths, which he and
many others attribute to poorly constructed schools.
"I'm really tired of this bull," Mr. Ai said Thursday in a telephone
interview from Beijing, where he has a large studio. "I went there,
and I saw the school building collapsed, and next to it is a building
that is fine."
On his blog, the artist has published his own list of children killed
in the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, gathering more than 1,500 names. He
has also posted transcripts of conversations he and others have had
with government officials who have refused to cooperate with them.
"You have to provide letters and stamps and tell the civil affairs
office what you want and what you need it for," is a typical official
response he has received to his inquiries, he said.
The postings are unusual in that they have not yet been censored or
removed from the Internet. Mr. Ai is being allowed to criticize the
government sharply about a very delicate topic in Beijing.
Harsh critics of the government are often censored, muffled or
arrested, and crackdowns on dissent are common. Last June a human
rights activist named Huang Qi was arrested and charged with
illegally possessing state secrets after he aided parents who
demanded that those responsible for poor school construction be held
accountable. Mr. Qi had posted information about their demands on his
But Mr. Ai, the son of one of the greatest Chinese modern poets, Ai
Qing, is being allowed to speak out so candidly on a government-
controlled Web site.
"He's very much an agent provocateur," said Meg Maggio, director of
the Pekin Fine Arts Gallery and a longtime friend of Mr. Ai. "He's a
public figure and he's from a very important intellectual family, so
maybe he's reached a status and can say a lot of things."
After the earthquake last May, the government essentially barred
Chinese journalists from reporting on the subject of shoddy school
construction and the deaths of children, according to several Chinese
Angry parents in Sichuan have demonstrated and pressed the government
to explain why so many schools collapsed while other buildings nearby
remained intact. Many blamed government corruption in the
construction process for the differences in the stability of the
buildings. Public security agents have broken up many of the
demonstrations and have even harassed parents for pressing the case.
Nearly 10 months after the earthquake, the Chinese government still
says it is unclear how many children died in the rubble.
This month, Wei Hong, executive vice governor of Sichuan, told the
news media that there was still no final number for children's deaths
and that experts had concluded that the intensity of the quake, and
not poor construction, was the main reason for the high death toll.
Mr. Ai rejects that explanation and says he is determined to get the
names of the victims himself.
"I want to do it before the one-year anniversary," he said.
He added Thursday, "If you see the photos, it's so unbelievable, so
sad to see what happened to those children."
A man who answered the telephone in the general office of the Sichuan
provincial government in Chengdu declined to give his name but
confirmed that Mr. Ai or one of his researchers had called the office.
"He's totally crazy, he kept asking questions again and again," the
man said. "My colleague was quite cooperative and patient. You know,
some data and reports on the student death toll, it's not our duty to
Mr. Ai is not new to controversy. He is known for his avant-garde
photographs and sculptures and for his blend of traditional Chinese
elements and modern style — but also for his sharp tongue.
Although he helped design the National Stadium, he vowed to stay away
from the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, saying he believed
in freedom, not autocracy.
Now, he says he is determined to produce a documentary on the
earthquake. He said a team of more than 100 people had already
conducted dozens of interviews with grieving parents for the film.
Asked why his blog had not been shut down, he admitted to being
"Every day I'm waiting for that, but it hasn't happened," he said.
Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting from Beijing.