Final Research


Since 2005, Ai Weiwei has engaged a range of digital media platforms as the principal means to communicate and maintain a relationship with his followers, both within China and the world at large. Mostly, from his broad blogging activities to his creative use of Instagram and Twitter, as well as his establishment of ironic memes and online videos, photos and audio recordings, Ai has thoroughly harnessed the strength of the Internet as a resourceful tool for public expression and conversation.

China — 5,335 students dead, missing in 2008 quake

BEIJING — A year after the massive Sichuan earthquake levelled hundreds of schools, sparking allegations of corruption and shoddy construction, China finally gave Thursday its first official tally of the numbers of students dead or missing: 5,335.

Parents say the schools crumbled so easily because corruption and mismanagement led to slipshod construction and weak buildings that were not up to code. Some say materials meant for school construction projects were sold on the side by contractors for personal gain.


While no specific event was held on May 12, as of May 23, the project has recorded the names of 5,190 students. Ai notes that the majority of those deaths—around 3,500—occurred in just 18 of the 14,000 damaged schools. He is quick to point out the discrepancy between his figure and the Authorities’, and he openly questions the veracity of the Authorities’ numbers in light of their reluctance to release a list of names. A May 23 entry on Ai’s blog, which details the project’s methodology and findings to date, was meant to contrast with the Authorities’ silence about its methodology. The artist believes his current figure represents 80 percent of those killed.


The earthquake demolished over 7,000 classrooms, and killed thousands of 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 Authorities 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 Authorities 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 scandal2 (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. Amongst them, Ai Weiwei’s citizen investigation project was one of the most well-known and influential projects.

Citizens’ Investigation

Citizens’ Investigation marks a turning point in Ai’s life, work, and missionAi’s work. He has used the outcome of the project for highly visible public artworks, to begin with So Sorry, his solo exhibition in the Haus der Kunst (Munich, 2009)

In a blog post titled “Citizen Investigation” on March 20th, 2009, he wrote: “To remember the departed, to show concern for life, to take responsibility, and for the potential happiness of the survivors, we are initiating a citizen investigation.” Issuing an open call for citizen participation, Ai succeeded in recruiting around 100 volunteers on-line for the investigation.


This 87 minutes long video was dedicated by Ai weiwei and myriad volunteers as a memory of those innocent departed lives. The black background with violin and stringed music which penetrates throughout the entire video delivers endless grief. The 4,851 names are shocking by sight like 4,851 funerals and can even bring out some tears.

Ai Weiwei, “Remembering” and the Politics of Dissent

The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.

Ai Wei Wei straightens 150 tons of steel rebar from Sichuan quake

The work is composed of 150 tons of steel rebar which the artist recovered from the sites of the collapsed schools in sichuan following the quake. varying in diameter, ai weiwei has had all of the retrieved metal parts straightened as if new, and has arranged them in stacks, creating an eery landscape which immediately brings forth a feeling of somberness in memory of those whose lives were lost; the action of adjusting the pieces in a way metaphorically speaking of the artist trying to make things right.

Four years on: What China got right when rebuilding after the Sichuan earthquake

One of the most astonishing aspects is the speed and efficiency with which the Chinese Authorities was able to mobilize Authorities agencies, the private sector and the population at large.

Soon after the disaster, the planning process for recovery and reconstruction efforts took off, including the optimization of the urban layout during reconstruction, the restoration and reconstruction of rural production and living facilities, the provision of health services; the creation of cultural, sporting and other public service facilities; the strengthening of disaster prevention and relief systems; the restoration of the ecological landscape; and the provision of psychological support of the affected population

Some RMB108 billion (US$ 16.6 billion) were spent in these facilities, including investments in medical and sanitation facilities and social management. Schools and hospitals are now fully restored and reconstructed, in addition to social welfare houses, elderly homes, community service centers, village activity centers, etc..

China earthquake: Beijing seizes on rescue for Olympic propaganda

Then Li Changchun, the party leader in charge of publicity, told reporters to present positive images of the relief effort. From that point on, China’s television screens and newspapers have been filled with endless shots of soldiers parachuting from aircraft and grateful children holding up signs extolling the People’s Liberation Army.

Olympic artist attacks China’s pomp and propaganda

All the shitty directors in the world are involved. It’s disgusting,” said Ai. “I don’t like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment. It is mindless.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei arrested in ongoing government crackdown

But the arrest of Ai and the others appeared to mark what human rights groups and others called a new and more sinister phase in China’s ongoing, and typically cyclical, repression of dissidents. In the past, such sweeps of activists have preceded major events on the calendar — the 2008 Olympics, major Communist Party meetings or the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo last December — and have receded once the event ended.

The arrests of bloggers and writers, in particular, on subversion charges suggests a rollback of the limited open space recently allowed for free opinion on the Internet and particularly on popular Twitter-like microblogging sites.

Documentary Is Just One of My Tools: The Digital Film Activism of Ai Weiwei

It is clear that Ai’s outspoken internet postings and his activism contributed to his detention, but another related cause that has been less explored in overseas discussions is his role as a documentary filmmaker. Working with a production team organized through his Beijing studio—his residence and his main headquarters located in the northwest corner of the capital—Ai has released eight guerrilla-style documentaries and many short online videos that, in their rough style and critical approach, seek to initiate a space of open inquiry and free speech around social issues in China.

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