I was born in 1957 and spent my childhood in China's remote Xinjiang region, where my father, Ai Qing, had been exiled. He was a poet, not a revolutionary, but the Communist Party had no tolerance for free thinkers. So he spent years cleaning toilets, enduring beatings and public humiliation. To me, it was a lesson in how horribly humans can treat one another.
On Oct. 1, the Party will mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Thanks to the ability of the Chinese people to struggle and endure, the country can also celebrate its arrival as one of the world's most powerful economies. The government may trumpet this success as the product of its own wisdom. It is only natural, though, that when hundreds of millions of hardworking Chinese are finally allowed to rejoin the world after a century of isolation, they will succeed. As we mark how far China has come in these past 60 years, it's also worth noting how far the country has yet to go.
When the communists were fighting for control of the nation in the 1930s and '40s, they promised democracy, a free press and an independent judicial system. Six decades after they came to power, none of those exist.
Take the case of Tan Zuoren, a man charged with "inciting subversion of state power." In August I went to Sichuan to testify at his trial. Tan is an editor and environmentalist, not a revolutionary. But like my father, Tan asks the important questions and says what he thinks. Now, as then, that's a dangerous thing in China. If you open your mouth to point out something that is clearly wrong, if you believe in your essential right to speak, then you can be labeled an enemy of the state.
After a shocking number of Sichuan schools collapsed in the catastrophic earthquake last year, Tan decided to compile a list of those students who had died. I recruited volunteers for a similar project. When you see so many lives vanish, you have to ask why. And when the system refuses to provide an answer, you have to use your own means to uncover it. At every step the government tried to block our inquiries. Police followed, harassed and in a few cases beat the volunteers. Tan was arrested on March 28. While I was in Sichuan to speak at his trial, police stormed my hotel room in the middle of the night, punched me and detained several of us. (I had to undergo cranial surgery in Munich for my head injuries.) The clear intent was to ensure that none of Tan's supporters could witness his prosecution.
We believe that corruption and shoddy construction contributed to the high student death toll, which may be as high as 6,000. Why is the government so afraid of an independent investigation into this matter? Because the Party knows its system is vulnerable, that its credibility is weak and that it has become a mafia whose only unifying ideology is to hold on to power. The truth about something as simple as why those students died in Sichuan could undermine its authority. To witness this vulnerability, you need only look at the soldiers and paramilitaries filling the streets of Beijing and the pages of mainland newspapers ahead of the Oct. 1 National Day parade. It is more a show of fear than joy.
Facing this legacy of repression, it is easy to become pessimistic. Some people lament that young people today don't share the idealism of students in the 1980s. But while my generation dreamed lofty goals, they had little foundation. We were like a tall flower on a thin stem. Faced with armed resistance in 1989, the students in Beijing were cut down with tragic ease. Today's young people are more practical, and because of that I am optimistic about their chances of promoting fundamental change. They aren't ready to march in the streets, but they are equally unwilling to be told what they can or can't read and discuss online. They simply want to be free to live their own lives.
What I'm talking about is nothing revolutionary like the democracy that the Communist Party once promised. It is the fundamental matter of protecting one's individual dignity. It is about seeking answers to simple questions like why so many students died in Sichuan. It is about demanding answers and accountability from one's government. If Chinese citizens do that, then this 60th anniversary will not just be about the Party congratulating itself. It will be the final hurrah of a dying system.
Beijing-born Ai Weiwei is an artist, architect and activist