the boundary to address the causes of their suffering, through serious and open public deliberations, and even activism to find out causes of the suffering?’ Those who answered yes joined the campaigns launched by Ai Weiwei and Tan Zuoren to collect and verify the names of student victims. They were harassed, pursued, threatened, expelled, and detained. Tan Zuoren was sentenced to five years in prison. Those who answered no felt a sense of guilt that kept gnawing at their conscience. It was one thing to make angry comments online as a distant netizen; it was quite another if one as a volunteer actually went there, talked with the embittered survivors, and had to directly face this dilemma. Volunteers used all kinds of rhetorical devices to get around the difficult questions they faced on a daily basis—telling themselves: ‘It’s normal in this society’; or ‘I can’t change anything, and so I’ll forget about it’; or simply ‘I don’t care’. Their apathy was not a result of an actual threat from the authorities, but a fear of imminent danger implied in the political context. That was what most Sichuan volunteers chose to do. Even grimmer is the scenario of a ‘spiral of silence’: the more repressive the political context is, the less likely one is going to talk about or act on the issue of injustice; the less 58 MADE IN CHINA - STATES OF EMERGENCY
one talks about or acts on the issue, the more repressive the context becomes. In the end, with no hope to take action, one somehow loses the ability and desire to talk about the issue and silently buries it in the quiet realm of unconsciousness. This collective silence led to the state’s unchecked representation of the past—or official forgetting of some parts of this past. Official commemorations were held, and memorials were built to celebrate the ‘victory of the battle against the earthquake’. The largest memorial was built right on Beichuan High’s old campus. The memorial has two main buildings and many grassy mounds. The burgundy colour of the buildings fits well with the green of the mounds. Nice and clean. But, too clean. Most ruins were wiped out, but the ruins of the main classroom building which buried more than 1,000 students were too big to be removed. Instead, they are covered by a huge grassy mound with only an inconspicuous banner to tell visitors that the students and teachers of Beichuan High died there. No details. No numbers. No names. No explanations. It is also located in a place far from the normal shuttle route, so many visitors may not bother to walk that far. This strategy is what I call the ‘topography of forgetting’—the state reshapes the topography of a disaster site to reshape memory. Driven by sorrow, compassion, and the ‘can-do’ spirit, the Sichuan volunteers accomplished something extraordinary.
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- Spring '14
- People's Republic of China, Hu Jintao, Communist Party of China, Xinjiang, Xi Jinping