A Chinese Blogger's Site Gets Censored

For the past few months, Chinese artist and blogger Ai Weiwei has been compiling names of all the children who died in poorly-built schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. On May 28 at midnight, his online record of 5,010 names suddenly disappeared, "destroyed with one finger's touch," says Ai, by Chinese government censors who blocked his blog on three major Chinese portals, Sina, Sohu and Netease. It happened "without any explanation from anybody," he says. The fullest available public record of the young victims is now gone unless the state changes its mind, which seems unlikely. China's government has pledged to compile its own names list--enraged by official inactivity, Ai began his campaign in March – but so far it has only produced a rough estimate of 5,335 dead, with no names or other details, largely in response to media coverage of Ai's campaign.

When he began posting the names of the dead children on his blog a few months ago, Ai recruited some 40 volunteers who blogged citizen journalist reports on police harassment of Sichuan parents. "The state tried so hard to make them vanish, the dead and the existing, so it became my obligation to let the world know what happened," he says. His methods express his core belief that, "We have to act up individually, to directly trust our own judgment, to bear responsibility, to ask the right questions, to make the law work, otherwise it's too easy for them."

Two days before the day the blog disappeared, police visited Ai's 76-year old mother, and plainclothes officers began watching his movements, waiting for him near his Beijing home. When we met on Saturday, Ai said he had been up all night texting legal advice to a man who was detained after a 20-minute visit to Ai's house earlier Friday evening.

Police showed up at his mother's home while Ai was attending a U.S. Embassy gathering for House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Ai gets these type of invitations because he's an art-world celebrity, who helped design the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium. He's got two solo retrospectives lined up, in Munich and Tokyo; his work includes bubble-shaped blue rocks lining a coast highway in Florida. He lived 12 years in New York, until 1993; he hung out with beat poet Allen Ginsberg and protested against the U.S. in the 1991 Gulf War. He's no Pelosi fan, dishing out the same vinegared sarcasm to her as to Beijing's leaders. One of his final blog posts said Pelosi had gone from "a once-crafty heroine into an obsequious, felonious old bag." She was "very soft," trying too hard to please Beijing, he later explained.

The clampdown on Ai began days before the twentieth anniversary of June 4, 1989 when government soldiers massacred pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square. Asked why, he says he thinks that government officials were "very scared about what I was going to write on June 4." Ai says he had not planned to make any statement on Tiananmen since he had been living in the United States at the time. Still, he says, "I'm concerned about today's life. [China is] full of problems. We don't need to wait for June 4" to criticize. He believes China's political no-go zones have created an immature leadership and immature citizens as "nobody bears responsibility" in an unaccountable system, and that it is his duty as a citizen to question the government.

For this reason, he finds a silver lining in the disappearance of his blog. Readers are texting and emailing him – "they're sad like somebody's dead." He adds, "This teaches people how important freedom of expression is." The blog carried 3,000 posts (about 500 of them deleted by censors on earlier occasions) and 100,000 photos. With a total of 11.6 million page views over three years, the site was never one of China's most-trafficked, but it was influential as newspapers picked up his message.

Despite his love of verbal aggression, Ai speaks softly for the most part, and is thoughtful and articulate. What's happened to him in the last week "tells the world that no matter how strong and how rich a nation can be, without these essential human rights, it's still a brutal society, an uncivilized society."

Though Ai has been a critic of the government, as far as he knows he's never been followed by the police--until now. Does he think he might be arrested? The issue was clearly on this mind in his final blog post before the site was taken down: "I'm ready," it said. He insists that he's "not worried at all because I have nothing to be worried about. If I have to sacrifice some of my freedom because I ask for basic fairness and justice for those children, I'm not worried."

A Chinese Blogger's Site Gets Censored | World