Blogging for Truth: Ai Weiwei’s Citizen Investigation Project on China’s 2008 Sichuan Earthquake
On the afternoon of May 12, 2008, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan province in China, killing at least 6, 8000 people and leaving over 18,000 missing. The central government and the state media proactively reported the disaster, setting up “a major departure from China’s past tendency to conceal crises” (Tran 2008). However, the proactive and innovative crisis communication didn’t mean that the Chinese government had totally changed the conventional information control in the times of crisis. Minefields still existed in the coverage of the Sichuan earthquake, such as the notorious schoolhouse construction scandal.
In the earthquake, over 7,000 classrooms collapsed and killed about 5,335 students. The large death toll led to wide discussion about the quality of the school buildings. This, in turn, led to allegations of corruption against government officials and construction contractors, who were complicit in constructing sub-standard school buildings while pocketing the remaining surplus. The scandal soon became a focal point of reporting. Despite initial openness to media’s crisis reporting, the Chinese government issued notice to media outlets ordering them to downplay the issue, and forced China’s most famous liberal press, Southern Metropolis Daily and foreign media to withdraw from the earthquake zone in case they further investigated the scandal (Weaver 2008). When media’s investigative reporting of the scandal was suppressed, some social activists, public intellectuals and activist bloggers initiated independent investigation projects to further look into the issue. Ai Weiwei’s citizen investigation project was one of the most well-known and influential projects.
As a contemporary artist and intellectual activist with international reputation, Ai Weiwei was unsatisfied with the government’s refusal to release the death toll of the students. He intended to compile a list of names of schoolchildren killed in the school buildings by doing independent investigation. In an interview about his investigation, Ai Weiwei argued “all citizens should have the rights to supervise the government, as well as the responsibility to investigate the truth when the government keeps silent”. The main purpose of the project was to “show respect to every individual victim’s life and refuse to forget the tragedy” (Peacehall.com 2009).
On December 15, 2008, Ai Weiwei’s Citizen Investigation Group (CIG) was formally set up. The CIG started collecting profiles of student casualties through available online information, such as mourning websites and reports from NGOs. Due to limited information online, on January 17, 2009, the CIG sent four volunteers to Sichuan to collect students’ profiles. After two months’ fieldwork, on March 15, Ai Weiwei released the first investigation report on his personal blogs based on China’s three major commercial portal sites: Sina, Sohu and NetEase. Tianya Forum, China’s most influential Bulletin Board System (BBS) with nearly 92 million registers currently, soon reposted the report, arousing heated online discussion about Ai Weiwei’s citizen investigation. The suppressed schoolhouse construction scandal re-entered the public discursive sphere through alternative online communication. Ai Weiwei’s three blogs soon became reliable information sources for those who wanted to know the truth of the scandal.
Having attracted great attention from the public, Ai Weiwei began to use blogs to mobilize the public to participate in his project. On March 20, he posted advertisement to recruit volunteers. The online recruitment received considerable feedback from the audiences. From March 25 to April 21, three batches of volunteers (18 people, 9 people and 11 people respectively) were recruited and sent to Sichuan. Ai Weiwei kept blogging with first-hand information provided by the volunteers from the front-line. From March 21 to May 29, Ai Weiwei posted 202 blog entries to release the names of student victims and 115 entries documenting the volunteers’ investigation. The page view of his three blogs reached more than 10 million times in total. In addition, his blog entries were widely circulated and reposted on BBS, blogs and social media sites in China and overseas, making his investigation a real media event.
Ai Weiwei’s investigation also attracted considerable attention from foreign media outlets. By May 8, 2009, Ai Weiwei had accepted nearly 70 interviews from overseas media about his investigation, including NBC, BBC, Reuters and NHK, which effectively exerted external pressure on the Chinese government. Under the internal and external pressure, the government finally released the death toll of the schoolchildren on May 7, 2009. A total number of 5, 335 students were confirmed dead or missing in the Sichuan earthquake (Ang 2009). However, the names of the lost schoolchildren were not attached with the official figure.
Due to the great social influence Ai Weiwei’s investigation and blogs caused, the government shut down his blogs on May 29. However, online circulation of his blog entries was difficult to stop. Millions of netizens reposted Ai Weiwei’s blog entries to support his citizen investigation. Losing the blogging platforms in domestic cyberspace, Ai Weiwei moved his blog overseas. He reposted all blog entries on Bullogger.com, a Chinese political website with server based in the US, and continued blogging. Though the website was also blocked in China, some skillful Chinese netizens, who knew how to circumvent the Great Firewall, could access the site and repost his blog entries in China’s cyberspace, making the reverse flow of the blocked information possible. By the end of July 2009, Ai Weiwei completed his investigation. A total number of 5, 194 students were confirmed missing or dead. The number was quite close to the official figure. Moreover, a name list of 4,851 students was compiled and released on his blog.
As Jeffrey S. Juris (2005, 192) points out, in current networked social movements, “activists have used new digital technologies to coordinate actions, build networks, practice media activism, and physically manifest their emerging political ideas”. Ai Weiwei’s citizen investigation project has vividly demonstrated the tendency. In his project, blogs are the central platforms to release investigation report, recruit participants, interact with audiences and mobilize public opinion. Blogging is used as a strategic means to connect the offline and online actions, and promote their interactions. In this sense, the function of blogging in Ai Weiwei’s investigation project is the same with other forms of engagement via new media in global networked social movements, which is both “symbolic” and “material” (Lievrouw 2011, 158). It not only represents the suppressed agenda in disaster as alternative journalistic practice, but also enables China’s right defense movement enacted in a new mode of interaction and engagement centered on the Internet.