Ai Xiaoming on Tan Zuoren, the “good man of Sichuan”

By David Bandurski — Those who followed the massive earthquake in China last year will no doubt remember the photograph below, which shows a student trapped in the rubble of Beichuan High School (sometimes translated “Beichuan Middle School“), where more than 1,300 students died during the May 12 quake. The school became symbolic of deeper questions about the responsibility of government officials and construction contractors who had failed to ensure — or so many suspect — that the classroom buildings complied with safety codes.

In March this year China’s government released the findings of its investigation into the collapse of schools in the Sichuan quake, saying the strength of tremors, not poor construction, was to blame. These findings followed a high-level admission late last year that poor construction was a problem for China’s schools.

But getting at the true causes behind the collapse of school buildings in the Sichuan earthquake had for months been the objective of Sichuanese activist Tan Zuoren (谭作人), who organized a grassroots “citizen investigation” into student and teacher deaths.

On March 28 Tan Zuoren was taken into custody under charges of “inciting subversion of state power” (涉嫌颠覆国家政权), the same charge that has been leveled against human rights activist Hu Jia (胡佳) and other dissidents.


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[ABOVE: Remember this image from the May 2008 Sichuan quake? It shows a student trapped in the rubble of Beichuan High School, which was given poor marks by a construction inspection firm two years earlier. See translation of document excerpted by Ai Xiaoming below.]

Earlier this week, Guangzhou scholar and 2009 CMP fellow Ai Xiaoming wrote movingly on her Weblog about her friendship with Tan Zuoren, whom she met on a trip to the earthquake zone last year.

In her article, which has been removed from a number of sites and forums, Ai appealed to police at the detention center where Tan is being held to treat him humanely. She also offered excerpts from the record of a meeting on construction quality at Beichuan High School held more than two years before the quake, which points to problems with both materials and personnel.

Responding to the charges of “subversion of state power” raised against Tan, Ai Xiaoming paints a portrait of the activist as a national hero, a kind of Lei Feng (雷锋) of China’s emerging civil society: “You take this kind of person and lock them away? And you say he ‘incited subversion of state power’?” she writes. “Who would believe that? Zuoren has done so much good for this country and its state power, even to the point of being a Lei Feng. His only point of difference with Lei Feng is the fact that Zuoren is a man of independent thoughts and beliefs, and it is on these that he acts.”

Tan Zuoren, the Good Man of Sichuan
Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明)

After May 12 last year, I too went to Sichuan as a volunteer. At first, I opted not to go. I even wrote an article called, “Everyone Can Fight for Wenchuan” (每个人都可以战斗在汶川), its basic idea that all of us need to have the volunteer spirit anywhere, in the midst of ordinary events. But later, because I was working on a documentary, I went to Sichuan anyway. That was how I came to make many friends there. And one of the best of these friends was Tan Zuoren.

Right now, as I prattle on with my pen, words cannot properly convey my feelings. The sun is high outside my window. The grass is green and the flowers in bloom. But I know not what trials Tan Zuoren faces at this moment in his jail cell. He cannot return home. He cannot see his own wife or daughters. Perhaps he goes hungry at night, or sleeps fitfully knowing he must pay “the price” for the crimes of which he is accused. My feelings now are not unlike what I felt for those affected by the earthquake as [they awaited news of] loved ones trapped in the rubble, powerless to shift the concrete and steel. A pain seizes my chest . . . Zuoren, do you have any idea how many friends are calling out your name? They have gone to the very gates of the Wenjiang Detention House (温江看守所) where you are being held – but of course no one pays them any regard. At such a time, who can possibly save you?

Zuoren is a well known environmental activist in Sichuan, and the editor of Literati magazine (文化人). His writings can all be seen on the Internet – provided you can leap the wall. Reading his writings you can see for yourself what kind of person he is: hospitable and friendly, filled with a sense of justice and fairness. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote a play called, “The Good Person of Szechuan”, which talks about how three gods travel to Sichuan in search of a good and fair person, but of course they don’t find one [except for the prostitute Shen Te]. There is a line in the play about how “all of Sichuan lost face.” Brecht passed on long ago, but I would invite those gods of his to go in search of Tan Zuoren – find him and you’ll find much good in the Sichuanese.

My first impression of Zuoren was that goodness courses through his whole body. As everyone in China knows, the Sichuanese identify strongly with their homeland . . . But Zuoren’s love for Sichuan was evinced in the way he channeled these feelings into his sense of responsibility as a citizen. I remember that when we went together to tour the earthquake zone, he talked the whole way about how the site of the Pengzhou Petrochemical Project (彭州石化) had been poorly selected, and his argument was truly compelling. I was also thoroughly impressed by his wide-ranging knowledge of Sichuan’s natural habitat and wildlife as well as its culture and history. It was because of this [deep knowledge and feeling] that he used his real name, address and identity card number when he wrote the proposal for the “peaceful surrounding of the city” (和平保城) movement, which advocated “a show of weakness in order to make a show of strength” (我们不示威、我们示弱). He is not the kind of person who, when they consider expressing themselves freely, plays a game of “cat and mouse: (躲猫猫). This is no ordinary show of courage, but its demonstration and striving. It demonstrates that these are my rights, this is my commitment, my responsibility. This is my home, my nation, and these are my people. In his wife’s own words, “He is the kind of person whose love for his own country is terrifying.” Zuoren’s love is about action, and about sacrifice. In this materially acquisitive world of ours, sacrifice long ago ceased to be a word that Chinese put into practice in their everyday living.

I remember that when we went to Beichuan together, the 100-day anniversary of the quake had just passed two days before, and Zuoren had posted online his article, “Longmen Mountain, Please Bear Witness for the Children of Beichuan.” I said to him, a number of people have already been arrested, and still you write [a piece like that]? He said that even if raising his pen meant death he had to write out [what he knew and felt] . . . When we left [Beichuan] the sky was growing dark, and it was as though the dead were flooding in around us. We had been on the move all afternoon and were all exhausted, but we decided to climb uphill out of the city in search of a shortcut. Zuoren was carrying his own bags, but he carried my video camera bag with him too. The road was rough and I was already at the end of my strength, using all fours to clamber up the slope. Zuoren spoke not a word, but just moved on ahead of us . . .

It was also that time that we saw a copy of meeting minutes [from March 2006] at a Mianyang construction supervision company about construction quality at the classroom complex for Beichuan High School. I’ll excerpt those notes here, making them available for review by supervision experts.

Mianyang City Hongsheng Construction Supervision Company Limited (绵阳市宏昇建设监理有限公司), Meeting Minutes
Date: March 31, 2006
Location: Design Center Office
Presiding: Wang Zhuowei (王卓伟), design chairman
Participants: company project supervisors
Topic: problems emerging from general inspection

Below are the portions dealing with Beichuan High School:

Zhou Xiaolong (周潇龙):
Beichuan Number One High School (北一中)

Contractor safety. Extremely low standards of safety and work. Building inspectors arranged for by the contractor were not on site. Comprehensive work safety measures were not taken on the second floor, and no precautions were taken on the stairwells. Work safety paperwork was incomplete, in particular, some necessary signatures were missing for the safety briefing session, and negligence was a rather serious problem among personnel.

Quality. Construction quality is quite poor. The problem of excessive earth in the gravel [used for cement mixing] was rather serious.

Supervision. There is insufficient onsite management experience, particularly there is an ignorance about safety procedures. Materials and blueprints are not executed in standard form, and problems of site surveying and mapping and personnel management are rather serious. No assessments were made as to a construction schedule and no adjustments were made [to account for problems].

[Full excerpt not translated here. Please see the Chinese.] . . .

The office building of Mianyang City Hongsheng Construction Supervision Company Limited did not collapse in the earthquake. But I do not know whether the two gentlemen mentioned in these meeting minutes, Wang Zhuowei and Zhou Xiaolong, survived the earthquake. Whatever the case, the things described here are not complicated, and they are not hard to explain. The only thing I cannot understand is that the new classroom complex for Beichuan High School was built in 2003, so why was construction quality under scrutiny in 2006? Was this a review of documentation? Beichuan High School still exists, and Beichuan still has construction supervision, so I hope that those who are familiar with the process will come to their own expert conclusions. Below I will continue to talk about my connection with Zuoren.

In August last year I left Sichuan and returned to my school [in Guangzhou] to teach classes. On occasion I would receive dispatches from Zuoren, and there were two in particular that I found impossible to forget. One was from last September. It was the 20th time he entered the disaster area, and one night he received a letter from Lu Shihua (陆世华), a parent of a student who died in Beichuan High School. This parent told Zuoren by instant message about the 18 open letters he had written [expressing his grievances]. He wrote:

I am Lu Shihua, father of Lu Fang, a student from Class Two of Beichuan High School. Sixteen years ago my wife died giving birth to this girl of mine. These sixteen years all on my own I poured all of my love and energy into her. She excelled, in both character and in achievement. On May 12 she departed, and her leaving is more than one can bear. Looking truthfully at the situation at Beichuan High School, I believe natural disaster was partly to blame, but that inferior construction materials were the chief cause of such great loss of life. Among all the buildings in the Beichuan High School complex, why is it that the classroom building was flattened? Why is it that the other buildings stood? Why is it that buildings that had been [officially] deemed dangerous stood? If the quality had been just a bit better, then perhaps even one young life might have been saved, and countless family members spared pain. Thousands of young lives were crushed to nothing, cut short in the most gruesome way. What of those injured? What of those crippled? In order to do justice to these children, in order that this tragedy is not replayed or happens less, I have these suggestions: 1) let the parents all gather at the site of Beichuan High School on July 1 and honor the dead; 2) demand that the relevant government departments give us a reasonable explanation, for example that there were indeed human factors involved, and conduct a strict inquiry according to the law; 3) How will the relatives of the victims be conciliated? What arrangements are being made for those with crippling injuries? Those who agree with these actions, please get in touch. Phone: ****. Lu Shihua, drafter of proposal, May 20, 2008.

It was because of this letter that Lu Shihua was taken from his home to the Mianyang City Police Substation on charges of “causing a public disturbance” and locked up for 18 days. But still he did not give up. On July 12 he wrote another letter to Communist Party officials:

On June 30, 1984, an evaluation conference (评审会议) was held in Zitong County for the Mianyang region, and an evaluation was given on the relocation of the county seat. On July 30, 1984, the Beichuan county government handed a report up to administrative offices known as Document 78, and the provincial planning commission approved the report . . . so why has there been no action, and why has construction been pushed aggressively [on the original site] in recent years? Our city lost some 20,000 people in the May 12 earthquake, hundreds were crippled, billions of yuan in damages caused and tens of thousands are homeless. What government should we say is responsible for these crimes? Secondly, Beichuan county lies in the middle of the Longmenshan Fault (龙门山脉断裂带), and earthquakes have happened here regularly in the past. As early as April 1977, the area of Beichuan was designated as having a seismic fortification intensity of eight (八烈度设防). Mianyang City designated Beichuan as a priority county in the province for seismic fortification. How is it that a classroom building constructed in 1998 was entirely flattened in the quake while those buildings built in the 1970s, which you classified as dangerous structures, did not collapse? Thirdly, was the classroom building that collapsed at Beichuan High School of decent quality? Did it meet building standards? Did Premier Wen Jiabao not say say just days after the earthquake that there needed to be an investigation into construction quality?

Lu Shihua was jailed and kept down, but all he wanted was an explanation. All he wanted was to go after the truth about shoddy construction. Because he had read Zuoren’s article, “Longmen Mountain, Please Bear Witness for the Children of Beichuan,” he felt that Zuoren was a good person, so he never stopped sending him messages, asking that question that broke his heart again and again: When I sent my healthy girl off to school, did I send her to her death?

After Zuoren received this instant message, he phoned up Lu Shihua and listened to him talk until three o’clock in the morning. For all his relentlessness, he still had no answer . . .

During Spring Festival this year I received another message from Zuoren. This time he told the story of Wang Xuebin (王学兵).

[Story of Wang Xuebin not translated.]

Zuoren is the kind of person who finds joy in helping others. So when I received an instant message that read, “Zuoren has been taken away,” I thought this was impossible. This looks more like a bumbling maneuver, or better yet, an April Fool’s Day hoax. You take this kind of person and lock them away? And you say he “incited subversion of state power”? Who would believe that? Zuoren has done so much good for this country and its state power, even to the point of being a Lei Feng (雷锋). His only point of difference with Lei Feng is the fact that Zuoren is a man of independent thoughts and beliefs, and it is on these that he acts. He most certainly has fallen afoul of those who are determined to push ahead their petrochemical project in Pengzhou, those who don’t want an inquiry into shoddy construction . . . [Writes about threats against Tan before his arrest.] . . . Zuoren said to himself: Today they attack my dog, tomorrow they’ll attack us. Things happened just as he expected . . .

I hear that our heroic people’s police rummaged around Zuoren’s house from 10am in the morning to 6pm, taking everything they should. I hear also that he has now been branded with a new charge, of calling on Chinese around the world to donate blood on June 4th this year. Oh, Tan Zuoren, Tan Zuoren, you long ago passed that age of youth in which one is full of sap, but you remain willing to pay with your own blood. You know only too clearly that countless numbers of Chinese, at certain times myself included, have averted their eyes in the face of disaster, just in order to live on in quiet degradation. There are few like yourself, those who, as Lu Xun said, are “the truly brave, who dare to face lives of bleakness, who dare to look straight at the carnage.” On the rubble of Beichuan High School, you piled up books that had been stained with the blood of children, tears streaming down your face. This past year, have you not shed enough sweat and tears? . . . Must you open your own veins and cast your feverish blood across the troubled soil of this nation! China is 9.6 million square kilometers, but if this blood of yours is spilled, would it fill two teacups? . . .

. . . I write these miscellaneous things not so much that Zuoren may see them in the future, but that these police who are now guarding Tan Zuoren might see them — with the hope that you might treat my brother Zuoren well. Should you starve him, should you humiliate him, then you truly exemplify the words spoken in Brecht’s drama The Good Person of Szechwan: you shame the people of Sichuan.

Zuoren, I do not know when we will be reunited, when we will raise our glasses together. On this moonlit night, I hope the well-wishes of your friends reach you in the Wenjiang Detention Center where you are being held. I hope they call to you, saying: “Our blood is warmed by your passion, and drop by drop we follow your example, flowing in rivulets until we join with you in our shared passion — Oh, my motherland.”



FURTHER READING:
Southern Metropolis News (Daily) on the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project,” China Digital Times, April 17, 2009
China quake: Why did so many schools collapse?“, The Christian Science Monitor, May 14, 2008
China’s student quake deaths spark anger at school construction,” Bloomberg, May 15, 2008
China’s shoddy school construction could destablize regime,” Foreign Policy Blog, May 15, 2008
Quake victims question shoddy school construction,” ABC Radio Australia, May 21, 2008

[Posted by David Bandurski, April 17, 2009, 8:45am HK]

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