The first thing you’ll notice about Ai is that he’s not a typical faggy Chinese. He’s big, strong, bearded (from testosterone) and sure of himself. When he sees cops or government officials he speaks in a clear, firm voice and without the slightest fear or hesitation. He’s attracted several men to accompany him everywhere with cameras. Outside this central brotherhood he has several assistants working for him. Since his fight with government corruption started, he’s made several documentaries showing his battles.
He first became a household name after designing buildings for the 2008 Olympics. But as an expert in building codes, he also noticed that most of the people who died in the 2008 earthquakes in Sichuan* were children smothered in sub-standard school buildings. When a public building contract is put into motion, officials (especially in the west) steal money out of the materials and working fees, making illegal buildings of very low quality that endanger the lives of school children. His idea was to make a list of the names of the children who died in the earthquake. Readers will not know why something this simple could be so controversial. But when the government kills people, they say those people didn’t exist in the first place†, even when they are pretending to mourn their deaths and ask for international aid.
Also at this time there were many scandals concerning how money from charities was being spent, and it’s especially dubious considering the fact that you’re not even allowed to know the names of who died.
When Ai was in Sichuan for his project, the Sichuan police beat him so hard that he was almost killed. A German surgeon saved his life and said if he had operated minutes later Ai would not have been saved. But even after this experience Ai is not afraid and continues his work.
*Sichuan is a province known for spicy food, which is why you can order Chinese food as “Sezchwan”. However it’s still only mildly spicy. Also interesting, there are many Tibetan enclaves in the north of the province and I’d recommend you visit those places, like Kangding, before signing up on a tour of the official province of Tibet, which will be “guided”, in natural areas not quite as pretty, and with a lower percentage of ethnic Tibetans. The capital of Sichuan is Chengdu, a very nice city filled with youth hostels and a backpacker culture. Recently Chong Qing, said to be the world’s largest city, broke off from Sichuan as its own province, and built the Three Gorges Dam(n).
†This practice is discussed in the lengthy (but worth it) documentary on the Karamay disaster, where 350 children were killed through gross negligence and corruption. None of the 350 children have death certificates, so the government is essentially denying they ever existed in the first place. This practice is called “vaporization” in Russia.