WASHINGTON – In May 2008, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck China. At its epicenter in Wenchuan, Sichuan province, thousands of children lost their lives.
Many died at schools that collapsed into rubble; they were built to subpar standards so that developers and local officials could skim money off the top, effectively profiting off the students’ lack of safety. When I visited Wenchuan soon after the quake, hundreds of children’s backpacks were strewn across the ground.
When I saw those backpacks, I wanted to know to whom they belonged. But Chinese authorities used the natural disaster to avoid addressing campus construction issues, evading proper explanation about the students’ deaths.
No clear death toll was given, nor was information released about the conditions of earthquake sites or causes of the school collapses. In response to anxiety and anger over people’s inability to access even basic facts about the loss of these precious lives, the group Citizens’ Investigation was created to collect personal information about the children who perished.
We aimed to provide the deceased with at least the very basic level of respect. The most fundamental civil right of any person is to their name; this is the smallest unit that allows us to attest to an individual’s existence.
Volunteers were recruited through my blog, and hundreds went through great difficulties to investigate. Several dozens of us went into the field. Despite the devastation at the earthquake sites, we managed to reach out to parents, conducting interviews and collecting names. We filmed the process.
During our visits, 25 volunteers encountered 45 instances of police harassment, arrests, beatings and detentions. In August 2009, I tried to testify for the writer and activist Tan Zuoren, who was accused of subversion of state power for conducting similar research, but I was detained in Sichuan and beaten by police.
I suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and required emergency surgery four weeks later, when I was preparing for the “So Sorry” exhibition in Munich to honor the children who died.
Despite all these hardships and with the support of many people over the Internet, we completed the list with more than 5,000 student names, birthdays, addresses and school information.
A courageous person is most identifiable in situations where two sides of a confrontation are unbalanced in power and strength. It takes courage for individuals to stand up for the weaker party, but by expressing our beliefs and positions we gained courage. The issue of the death count was seen as politically untouchable, but our refusal to accept the government’s silence was a call for change and a challenge to those in power.
Courage is not a fixed entity that belongs to a single moment; rather, it accumulates and is tested over time. It takes courage to face a challenge. That process, in turn, generates further courage. Our life experiences enhance our ability to understand our roles in society and strengthen our will to take further actions. A society can have courage only when its members can have faith in justice and fairness and know that their constitutional rights are protected.
Civil courage is born of openness to education, access to information and recognition of a society’s strengths.
It is noteworthy that a government official helped us tremendously during our investigation. Feng Xiang was vice minister of the local propaganda department in Beichuan county, several hours northeast of Wenchaun, and a poet of the Qiang minority. He lost his son in the earthquake and came under government pressure not to speak the truth. He secretly passed on the majority of names we collected in that area, a major disaster zone. But unable to bear the loss of his son, Feng committed suicide nearly a year after the earthquake.
After decades of crackdowns on freedom of expression and basic human rights, people in China often lack courage. Their voices are regularly ignored or rejected. It is easy to become discouraged in such circumstances. In my father’s time, people taking a stand on issues could be sentenced; speaking up might even cost them their lives. These conditions have ruined the lives of several generations.
Anyone with the will today to seek the truth is often regarded in China as stupid and naive. Given such pressure, it is almost impossible to encourage people to fight for their rights. Further, China has no independent media and exercises extreme ideological control. People can share information and have discussions online.
But strict censorship — my name still cannot be mentioned on the Internet in China — demonstrates the fragility of the totalitarian society. Chinese authorities fear public access to information. They are afraid that people will identify with each other and share ideas.
In the West, people are equipped with the basic prerequisites for participation in a democracy: protected human rights, judicial independence, relative media independence and platforms for free speech. If individual rights are not safeguarded, then people are unable to imagine what it means to possess civil courage. (There are certain exceptions: In cases of foreign aggression, democratic struggles among ethnic groups or conflicts between religions, human rights often disappear.)
In China, the constitution is hardly sacrosanct, and the rights it confers are not protected. Under the Communist Party’s control, there is no judicial independence, and the media exist solely for propaganda. Even the most basic information is incomplete and twisted.
Individuals have no religious freedom or freedom of association, nor are they at liberty to express their ideals. When the tanks drove into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Chinese society lost all forms of public civil courage.
In recent years, land disputes have given rise to tens of thousands of group conflicts, but they have never caught on at a meaningful public level.
The tactics those in power use to repress challengers vary by society. But all forms of repression share a few traits: Public discussions and direct responses are avoided. Institutions of power are arrogant and indifferent, and they are keen on eliminating direct public input into the decision-making process.
When unfairness cannot withstand basic tests of ethics and morality, a power’s own distrust of self and of logic is often revealed. For challengers, the biggest protections are the insistence upon a human stance, faith in fairness and justice, and trust in people and in change. It is also important to avoid being influenced by the other side and becoming a part of what one is challenging.
It is impossible to appreciate freedom without having courage. A person without the freedom to initiate challenges is like a flower withering away.
Courage is the prerequisite for one’s well-being; it is the sunshine and moisture needed to thrive in society. I often see young children show courage in acquiring new skills and knowledge. They expose their vulnerability and innocence through failing and learning, and they become more mature in the process. That willingness to make mistakes and fail — this sort of learning is life-affirming.
Ai Weiwei is an artist who was detained from April to June 2011 on charges of tax evasion; he remains unable to leave China. This column is adapted from a speech he presented Friday via Skype as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.