Everyone is concerned about the victims of the Qinghai earthquake and its many aftershocks. Just as in Sichuan two years ago, many buildings — including government-built schools — collapsed due to shoddy construction. Whether this is the “government’s fault” or just a result of the region’s relative poverty is still up in the air, and obviously, the discussion about it is already pretty political.
In response the the news that the official death toll has been increased again (to 1,484 as of this writing), Olympic Birds’ Nest designer and activist Ai Weiwei tweeted a rhetorical question to the government: “You fear the living, do you also fear the dead?”
I say rhetorical because Ai is unlikely to get an official answer (to put it lightly), but it’s actually a valid question. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the dead — specifically, the dead schoolchildren — became a huge liability for the government, especially when citizens like Ai Weiwei and Tan Zuoren started conducting an “investigation” in the area focused on collecting the names and birth dates of the dead students. Tan Zuoren is in prison now, and Ai was arrested dozens of times — the whole affair has become thoroughly embarrassing from the government’s perspective, especially since Mr. Ai has been especially good at making his case during his frequent international traveling and speaking engagements.
The dead — in that case, over 5,000 children crushed and buried under the remains of poorly-constructed schools — were a threat.
The jury is still out on whether this earthquake’s victims will pose any threat to the regime’s legitimacy, but the New York Times already seems to be indicating that the government is afraid of more dead students, or at least someone is:
At the No. 3 Primary School, the monks said they had pulled 50 students from collapsed classrooms but when an official came by to ask how many had died, the police offered half that number. “I think they’re afraid to let the world know how bad this earthquake is,” said Gen Ga Ja Ba, a 23-year-old monk.
Of course, it’s all secondhand information. Perhaps the monks are members of the “Dalai clique”, trying to confuse the “masses who are ignorant of the truth”. Or maybe it’s for real. Either way, when there are disasters like this, Ai Weiwei might be right. Even before real evidence is available, people — myself included — have jumped to the conclusion that at least some of the deaths are the government’s fault.
And given that Ai Weiwei walks free but there’s still not been an official public investigation into the “tofu-dreg” buildings that collapsed on students in Sichuan, it may well be that the government fears the dead even more than they fear the living.
And if you haven’t yet, take a moment of your time (and a bit of your money) to help out the victims and rescuers in Qinghai, who are valiantly struggling despite cold temperatures and all of the problems associated with high altitudes.