By David BandurskiReuters reported 20 minutes ago the news of the detention of environmentalist Tan Zuoren in Sichuan, so we’ll post now an evolving translation of a personal e-mail we received early this morning from a prominent Chinese filmmaker familiar with the case. Prior to his detention, Tan had been conducting independent research on the death of students in last year’s Sichuan earthquake, in many cases a direct result of shoddy building construction.


[ABOVE: “Mourning,” by Joshua and Eva, available at under Creative Commons license. A collage of Chinese newspaper front pages on the Sichuan earthquake from May 2008 ]

Our translation of the letter, which includes the text of Tan’s formal proposal urging the creation of a “May 12 Student Archive” (5·12学生档案), follows:

Tan Zuoren is a good friend of mine. He is a very reasonable and good person. Signed, ****
On March 28, Chengdu-based environmentalist, writer and former editor of Literati magazine (文化人) magazine Tan Zuoren (谭作人) was taken into custody under charges of “inciting subversion of state power” (涉嫌颠覆国家政权). [NOTE: This is the same charge that was leveled against Hu Jia (胡佳) in January 2008]. Prior to this Mr. Tan was working on an investigation into the death of children in shoddy school buildings during the Sichuan Earthquake, and was verifying a list of students who died. On the morning of the 28th, police barged into his home and took away all computer disks, handwritten notes and other materials. Only his children were home at the time, as the police proceeded to photograph the scene.
Tan Zuoren was an organizer and participant of many charitable events that drew attention from citizens in Chengdu and wider Sichuan. He organized a “peaceful protection” (“和平保城”) movement concerning a petrochemical project in Pengzhou (彭州), and submitted to the local government a petition called “Opinions and Proposals from Citizens Concerning the Penzhou Petrochemical Project” (关于成都彭州石化项目的公民意见建议书). Following the earthquake in Sichuan last year, Tan Zuoren published many analytical articles. This spring Tan Zuoren wrote a formal written proposal for the creation of a “May 12 Student Archive” (5·12学生档案) and began research on the ground with the hope that he might complete an independent citizen investigation in time for the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan quake.
Tan Zuoren’s mobile phone cannot be reached at present, and his wife and two small children have been along at home since his detention. Prior to his detention, his computer was stolen and his household dog was stabbed with a knife [by an unknown person]. Tan Zuoren felt that these were possibly acts of revenge against himself, and he had considered separating from his family in order to protect his wife and children from harm. As of now, Tan Zuoren’s friends have managed only to reach his home phone: ******.
Below is a copy of Mr. Tan’s formal written proposal:
Where there are Web users, there is openness and fairness. Web users of China, let us do our bit for the children!
A Proposal Concerning the Creation of a “May 12 Student Archive”
For the children who died in the May 12 earthquake disaster, Chinese law has collectively been lost. This is to the shame of judicial circles, and to the collective shame of Chinese people today.
Through 30 years of reform, the Chinese people have drawn the lessons of an autocratic society (人治社会). They have put right to wrongs, and steadily built the system and laws and the judicial system demanded of a society ruled by law. In the last 30 years, the idea of governing the country according to the law has entered the hearts of the people, becoming a basic consensus praised by all.
Nevertheless, following the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan, in the faces of masses of school buildings that collapsed without reason and before thousands of students and teachers who perished as a result, China’s courts have closed their doors and China’s laws have retreated. The house of rule of law that the Chinese people have worked so hard to build is lurching on its foundations, and is in peril. China’s has started to turn back on its journey toward judicial reforms, and reemerging is the idea that power is above the law and that public power can be used for private gain.
Owing to severe restrictions by the local government on investigation into the cause of the collapse of school buildings [in Sichuan], owing to the fact that education authorities have not launched their own investigations, and owing to the fact that building departments, seismological departments and justice departments have neglected their responsibilities, no one has looked into the reasons behind the collapse of the schools. And so, before the caprice of a small number of local officials and the ridiculous lies of a number of non-experts, China’s media has fallen silent, China’s laws have shrunk away, and Chinese society has turned a blind eye to these crimes against the truth and their terrible repercussions. Given such a state, the conscience and dignity of the Chinese people has already fallen victim to the political expedience and scheming of local officials. This is not right! And it is shameful!
What is tragic is that, out of a need to cover up guilt, we still do not really know how many children we lost in the May 12 earthquake! Because of this, China stands mute before the world — of course, those [local officials] who open their eyes and speak untruths, who close their eyes and speak crosswise, are exceptions.
Particularly disgusting is the fact that when the parents of students who perished in the May 12 earthquake organized themselves and sought to defend their rights in accordance with the law, using actions to preserve the gains of legal system building, they were again faced with man-made setbacks!
The children of May 12 are children of China. Every Chinese person of conscience should feel a twinge of guilt in their hearts and feel responsible for these children. When our children face unfairness and misfortune, can we not, aside from saying a simple “sorry,” take more concrete actions on their behalf?
Only by respecting the dead can we be kind to the living. As the one-year anniversary of the May 12 quake approaches, we hereby propose to Internet media: Web users of China, take action. Put into action all of your resources and build and participate in a “May 12 Student File,” so that the teachers and students who died in the earthquake can receive the respect that should be theirs.
All life is equally valuable. In assessing our losses, we must first calculate the loss of human life. As official statistics are not accepted as credible, and as popular estimates are not substantiated, what we suggest is this: Let China’s Web users act, building on the Internet a “May 12 Student Archive” on the basis of independent citizen investigations that is validated by parents of students who perished, using the Web to return to ourselves the truths that have been glossed over. On this basis, moreover, we must build an online “May 12 Student Memorial (5·12学生墓园) . . .
We recommend the following specific plan for the “May 12 Student Archive”:
1. We request that Web volunteers organize themselves and proceed to disaster-stricken areas in Sichuan, Gansu, Shaanxi to conduct independent citizen investigations. Through interviews with the parents of students, [these groups should] verify the numbers of deceased students in every class, in every schools, in every township and village and every region, in this way building various “May 12 Student Archive (XX Group)” survey databases that can be stored on their own blogs.
2. Through independent citizen investigations, solicit name lists of deceased teachers and students, and through the gathering of survey questionnaires (please see ATTACHMENT) seek the true causes that resulted in the senseless death of students and teachers, the real facts concerning those responsible for these accidents, and come to understand the principle demands of parents of students who have sought to defend their rights according to the law as well as the specific difficulties they face, so that these cases may be quickly moved into judicial proceedings and legal evidence presented in support.
3. To gather and compile the investigation results submitted by the independent citizen investigative groups, providing these to functional departments, decision-making departments, judicial departments and the news media, promoting reasonable public policy decisions and orderly channels for resolution [of lingering issues], fundamentally ensuring social stability and preserving conscience.
4. The facts will serve as evidence, and the law as the yardstick. Through the “May 12 Student Archive” we will preserve Chinese law and dignity, consolidate our gains in the building of rule of law, and work together to build China’s civil society.
Proposal author: Tan Zuoren (谭作人), Chengdu Web user
February 20, 2009

Chinese Quake Activist Arrested,” BBC, April 1, 2009
Chinese Official Calls for Heightened Security,” Associated Press, April 1, 2009
Chinese Officials Defend Construction of Schools Felled in Quake,” Keith Bradsher, New York Times, March 8, 2009
Online interview with Tan Zuoren at, about the Sichuan earthquake
Our Land is Under Seige,” Tan Zuoren, Human Rights in China, 2006
Link to Tan’s NGO, Green River [List of volunteers at Green River in Chengdu, including Tan].
[Posted by David Bandurski, 2:53pm HK, April 1, 2009]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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