There is something weirdly compelling about reading the transcripts of calls made to dozens of offices in search of specific numbers and names, part of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s attempts to force public clarity on data from the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan. You can read pieces of the list he and his friends have collected on his blog. CDT has an excellent post describing the action, the process, and a series of questions that Ai answered about the project on a public website. The main point: there is a lot of obfuscation because accuracy lends power to those who want accountability for bad construction and compensation for victims of all kinds.
Ai’s blog has transcripts after transcripts of calls to nursery schools, elementary schools, middle schools, education and civil affairs and government offices at the municipal, county, and provincial levels, where the caller tries to get specific numbers of the dead, and their names. There is a rhythm to the conversations and you can, if you want, learn something about how to talk to someone in an official position in a way that more or less works. Not works, as in, the caller gets what he or she wants, but works in that you can have an actual conversation. Which isn’t always easy.
A few of the schools give actual names and numbers–2 students at an elementary scbool, names, ages–but most go something like this one from a call made on March 13, 2009 at 4:13 pm to the Chengdu Ministry of Education. Phone number 028-61881710, length of call 36 min 2 second. The caller is not Ai Weiwei but a woman whose name isn’t given on the transcript. Her words in bold, the person at the Ministry in regular font.
Hello, is this the Chengdu Ministry of Education? Are you Section Chief Liu?
We are Beijing, individuals, we want to get the list of student names and numbers for those in the 5.12 tragedy. Can you provide it for us?
That, I can’t provide it for you.
Because you are an individual, and what does an individual want that for?
We, along with some netizens, are very concerned about the specifics of the situation. For instance, broad numbers are no longer meaningful. We want more detailed materials.
We’ve already distributed relevant materials.
But we still don’t have accurate materials! This is not fair for people who want to donate or who have already donated; they at least have the right to know.
Donated! You can go find the Civil Administration Department!
But as for the issue of the student deaths, the Civil Administration Department can only provide limited information. The Education Departments should provide accurate data.
There are a lot of related materials, and we’ve already taken care of the list of specific student names.
Can you release that list to the public?
We can’t release it, there is a problem of privacy.
There couldn’t be a privacy problem because those materials are exactly the kind of thing that the Department of Education should publicize, and every citizen has the right to know.
You have to see if the families are willing to tell, some of them aren’t willing to tell, they don’t even want to talk about it. The data you want are all at the Civil Administration Department, we’ve given it to them.
Even if the Civil Administration Department has the data, you too should be able to provide it.
This is about localized management, maybe you should ask the Publicity Department. Call 114, the Ministry of Statistics or the Ministry of Civil Affairs can give it to you. Online too.