Tan Zuoren and the 5.12 Student Archive documents

By David Bandurski — Last week we reported the arrest of Sichuan-based environmental activist Tan Zuoren (谭作人), who has reportedly been accused of “inciting subversion to state power” after organizing an “independent citizen investigation” into the death of teachers and students in last year’s Sichuan earthquake. But how exactly did Tan and others plan to arrive at a credible picture of the scale of student and teacher deaths in the quake and the deeper causes of this tragedy?

In order to offer a clearer picture of Tan’s activities, we provide several 5.12 documents that were to have been used to conduct the independent survey Tan Zuoren had planned. These were forwarded by a mainland source.


[ABOVE: "People's Square Candlelight Vigil" in remembrance of the earthquake, by Sinosplice available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license. Homepage image also by Sinosplice.]

It is worth noting that the Tan Zuoren case gives us yet another a glimpse into the inner workings of China’s emerging, yet troubled, civil society. With that in mind, we have provided a translation further down of a post written last year by writer Fu Guoyong (傅国涌) in which he writes of Tan as an inspirational figure in a society cowed into silence over their own rights.

We begin, though, with the following message, a memorial to students who died in last year’s Sichuan earthquake. This message was sent out by the 5.12 Independent Citizen Investigation Student Archive using a general e-mail address, and was later forwarded to us from a recipient inside China. The message came with a powerpoint presentation that we have posted to Slideshare (contains some graphic imagery):

Grave Sweeping Day. As I write these words to you, my heart is uneasy. Uneasy because I feel a certain terror, that from the time you were buried, the scars of these terrors passed away with you. It is not injury, for all possible injuries of this world are borne and kept by your mothers and fathers, by those close to you . . .

This uneasiness comes from forgetting, from the disregarding of human life, and this indifference to the value of human life is now swallowing the souls of every living person.

Tan Zuoren’s objective, as we have said, was to arrive at a reliable and independent figure for teachers and children who died in the May 12, 2008, Sichuan earthquake. To accomplish this he used grassroots activism and the medium of the Internet to distribute survey materials throughout quake affected areas.

Below is our translation of Tan’s questionnaire, to be distributed in local areas by members of the 5.12 project and then returned to “the person in your area responsible for collection.”

How many children did we actually lose in the May 12 earthquake? The official version is not credible, and the popular version lacks factual support. In order that we respect life, should we not have a parents version that comes closer to the actual truth? Please fill out this form — the one-year anniversary of our children fast approaches!

Scale of Loss of Teacher and Student Lives in Our Education System on May 12, 2008 (教育系统5.12地震死亡师生情况)/Survey Questionnaire (for parents)

Explanation: This questionnaire has been formulated on the basis of objectivity and impartiality in order to investigate the true situation of teachers and students in our province during the May 12 earthquake, and in particular the scale of the loss of life among teachers and students. The aim of this investigation is to understand the principal reasons behind the death of teachers and students in various regions, at various schools through an independent citizen investigation, and to understand the demands and actual situations facing the parents of students who died [in the quake], thereby providing a rational basis for public policy making. The basis goal of this investigation is to gain a clear picture of the losses incurred as a result of the earthquake disaster, particularly loss of life, to understand those people and/or actions legally responsible for causing and/or exacerbating damages, and to encourage citizens to defend their rights in accordance with the law, preserving the dignity of national laws, protecting the impartial nature of the judiciary, and upholding social stability. Therefore, we ask that those taking part in this investigation, in a spirit of responsibility toward those teachers and students who died, truthfully fill in the following questionnaire, using the truth and your own pen to preserve your legal rights and benefits. Thank you!

1. What number for total deaths of teachers and students are you familiar with?
A) Teacher and student deaths in the entire province ____ people.
B) Teacher and student deaths in local area (city or county, district or village) ____ people.
Source of this information: Print Media □ Television □ Internet □ Word of Mouth □ Guessing □ Investigation Results □
C) Teacher and student deaths at your local school ( ______ School) ____ people.
Source of this information: Print Media □ Television □ Internet □ Word of Mouth □ Guessing □ Investigation Results □

2. What do you think is the chief contributing cause of the death of students and teachers [in the quake]?
A) Construction quality issues □
B) The intensity of the natural disaster □
C) Construction + Intensity (A + B) □
D) Other reasons □

3. What do you believe is the chief reason for school collapses?
A) Construction quality was not up to standard □
B) Buildings were old and poorly maintained □
C) The scale and intensity of the earthquake □
D) Combination of factors (A + C □) or (B + C □)

4. Do you accept the government’s public explanations of the causes of school collapses?
A) Yes □
B) No □
C) A combination of both □ (半信半疑)

5. Are you satisfied with the actions the government has taken concerning collapsed schools?
A) Satisfied □
B) Unsatisfied □
C) Don’t know □ (不好说)

6. Are you satisfied with the economic compensation given for student victims?
A) Satisfied □
B) Unsatisfied □
C) Extremely unsatisfied □

7. Do you believe legal responsibility should be sought for those responsible for the accident (事故)?
A) Yes □
B) No □
C) Don’t care □

8. Are you interested in legal defense of your rights?
A) Interested □
B) Not interested □

9. If you face difficulties in your attempts to defend your rights under the law, are you prepared to give up?
A) Yes □
B) No, I won’t give up □
C) I will seek other means □

10. What relationship do you have to students who died in the quake?
A) Direct parental relationship □
B) Relative or friend □
C) No direct relationship □

Notice: Please mark a √ in the relevant boxes above, and then return your questionnaire to the person in your area responsible for collection.

Name of respondent (signed) _________ Contact telephone: ____________
Address: ______ city (county) ________ town (township) _______ village ______ brigade. ______ year ______ month _____ date.

We ask that parents please return their completed forms quickly. Address: XXXXXXXXXXXXX
E-mail: [E-mail and phone for Tan Zuoren provided on form]

In addition to the above questionnaire, Tan had prepared at least two data sheets to be filled out for the 5.12 Student Archive throughout the earthquake-affected region. An image of one of the documents follows:


[ABOVE: Tan Zuoren's "5.12 Student Death Circumstances Data Sheet," asking respondents to list deaths of which they have knowledge and the relevant circumstances. Sheet asks for parents names and contacts, student names, ages, male or female, whether died, lost or injured, and injured where (in or outside school).]

To conclude, the following are portions of a November 2008 post by writer Fu Guoyong (傅国涌) in which he discusses what he sees as the grave challenges facing rights defense actions by Chinese citizens since the 2007 Xiamen PX case heightened expectations of progress. Fu reposted the entry, which mentions the work of Tan Zuoren in Sichuan, on his blog on April 3 following news of Tan’s detention, and the article has been passed along via e-mail and on the Web in China over the last few days. Comments on the post can be seen here.

By Fu Guoyong (傅国涌)
April 3, 2009

[This is an article that I previously posted (on November 22, 2008). The day before yesterday, I received an e-mail from a friend whose name I will not mention informing me that, according to Mr. Tan Zuoren's wife, Little Wang (小王), Tan was taken into custody last Friday (March 27) and has fallen into darkness. His crime is given as "inciting subversion of state power"! I hope people will closely watch the fate of this big-bearded citizen who was traveling "the third road."]

The successful opposition of the public in Xiamen in 2007 to the PX [chemical project] brought whoops of joy, as a peaceful march pushed a stern government toward dialogue and eventually toward concession. This case left China’s media drunk [with expectation], and caused some people in our nation to harbor fragile hopes, believing that if they were to face a similar situation, which is to say that their local collective interests stood in harm’s way, this sort of sober and moderate form of expression might be generally effective. Nevertheless, when hundreds took to the streets to march on May 4, 2008, opposing a massive petrochemical project in Pengzhou (彭州) [Chengdu, Sichuan], they were attacked by police and at least four people were taken into custody. That was on the eve of the May 12 earthquake, and as the earthquake struck, news of the disaster drowned out everything else and this incident [in Pengzhou] did not get the attention it deserved. Half a year later, the scars of the earthquake have yet to pass, and in Pengzhou, which is located in just 30 kilometers from Chengdu proper and is one of the areas of the disaster zone hardest hit (just 30 kilometers from the epicenter at Yingxiu), this petrochemical project is about to start up. The National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Environmental Protection and the China Earthquake Administration have already signed off on the project. A friend of mine in the Beijing news media said that around 800 scientists and other experts were involved in the discussion of this major petrochemical project, including 103 national-level experts . . . Of these scientists and experts, the vast majority gave the go-ahead for this project, which is so damaging to the interests of citizens (“殃民毁城”的项目). He [this journalist] said with some measure of anger in an e-mail: “They have a duty and responsibility to uphold scientific conscience and the scientific spirit, making a public explanation to the people of Chengdu and to those around the world who care about the people in the area of the earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan.”

At this point, it seems that the die has been cast, and under powerful monopolizing interest groups, at the behest of a national machine that grinds everything to dust, all citizen opposition and all voices that differ have been snuffed out. Despite this, the citizens of Chengdu have not been entirely silent. They continue to struggle. Mr. Tan Zuoren is one example. He organized a movement among ordinary citizens to “peacefully surround the city,” encouraging the people of Chengdu to take to the streets carrying a simple piece of A4-sized white paper, wearing white face masks, white hats, white corsages . . . so that the whole city of Chengdu became white, the color white expressing their will. In his words, “using a mass expression of weakness to replace a collective showing of strength, using a passive act in order to actively advocate their own rights. Using white expresses opposition to the black dealings [of local officials], studying the democratic process in an orderly and progressive manner.”

These words are moving, and in China, this land where autocracy has held sway for so long, invisible bonds restrict not only our physical bodies but also our hearts and minds, so that we don’t dare think, don’t dare act, to the extent we refuse even to express our most basic disaffection, and fail to express our lack of submission or our disagreement. In the face of power, we comply with its interests, tell ourselves to persevere, and even refuse ourselves anger, refuse ourselves even that. “Resigning oneself to adversity” has become the wisdom by which we measure ourselves as a people. One could say that in Chengdu, Tan Zuoren created a new model for resistance, thinking to use “a show of weakness” to stand in for “a show of strength,” using non-overt actions to advocate actively for one’s rights. I know in the depth of my being that we must opt for shows of weakness because the state apparatus (国家机器) has deprived us of all possibilities to show our strength. We must opt for passive acts because all routes by which we might actively push for our rights have been sealed off. In a nation where demonstrations are not permitted, where even collective marches (集体散步) are not permitted, his ideas have great significance for action. That is to say, if only one’s heart and mind remain clear, if only one recognizes one’s own rights, no matter what situation you face you can conceive of resistance and find your own special way of saying “No.”

Of course, even this low-key movement of white was regrettably aborted under pressure from local police [in Chengdu]. But this does not mean Tan Zuoren’s actions failed, nor does it mean that the people of Chengdu failed. I believe that this road of civic resistance will continue, and the “storm of environmental protection in Chengdu” is just the beginning . . .

[Posted by David Bandurski, April 6, 2009, 10:58am HK]

Leave a Comment