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“China’s Unnatural Disaster”: Oscar-Nominated Doc on Sichuan Earthquake Brings World Attention to Chinese Crackdown on Dissidents

StoryFebruary 12, 2010
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Chinese courts are cracking down on dissident activists. Liu Xiaobo lost his appeal Thursday and now faces eleven years in prison for advocating political reform. Earlier this week, another prominent writer and activist, Tan Zuoren, was sentenced to five years in prison. Zuoren had been campaigning on behalf of thousands of parents whose children were killed when shabbily built schools collapsed in the massive Sichuan earthquake two years ago. To discuss China’s crackdown, we’re joined by two guests behind an Oscar-nominated film on the earthquake, China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province: co-director and DCTV founder Jon Alpert, and co-producer and Hunter College professor Peter Kwong. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 07, 2009“China’s Unnatural Disaster”: New HBO Documentary Chronicles Struggles of Grieving Parents Following 2008 Sichuan Earthquake
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


We turn now to China, where the courts are cracking down on dissident activists. On Thursday, veteran activist and prominent scholar Liu Xiaobo lost his appeal after a ten-minute hearing in Beijing’s high court and now faces eleven years in prison for advocating political reform in China. He was charged with “inciting subversion to state power.” The decision drew swift condemnation from the United States and the European Union, with the US ambassador in Beijing calling for his immediate release.

Earlier this week, a court in Sichuan province sentenced another prominent writer and activist to five years in prison. Tan Zuoren had been campaigning on behalf of thousands of parents whose children were killed when shabbily built schools collapsed in the massive Sichuan earthquake two years ago. He was charged with inciting subversion because of comments he made about the June 4th, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators around Tiananmen Square. But his supporters say he was arrested and convicted because he planned to issue an independent report on the collapse of school buildings during the earthquake in Sichuan that killed 80,000 people.

AMY GOODMAN: Tan Zuoren wrote his appeal in twelve Chinese words, simply saying, “I am innocent, I protest, I defy, I appeal.”

Two days before Tan was sentenced, the same court rejected the appeal of Huang Qi, another earthquake activist facing a three-year sentence for “illegal possession of state secrets.”

Well, for more on the China crackdown, we’re joined now by two guests who made an Academy Award-nominated film on China’s devastating 2008 earthquake. Fifteen-time Emmy winner Jon Alpert is the co-director of China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province. He is also co-founder of Downtown Community Television, the firehouse that was our home also for many years. Peter Kwong is with us also, professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College and co-producer of China’s Unnatural Disaster.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jon, it’s great to have you here. I often say, “Welcome to our firehouse studio,” when we’re not even there and we’re in our printing press studio.


This is really nice, and it’s wonderful that people’s media can have a home like this. You deserve it, and congratulations to you and to all the people that have supported you so that you can have a place like this. It’s great.


Well, congratulations to you on this Oscar nomination for this film about incredibly tragic, horrific event. You know, we’re talking about the earthquake a lot now in Haiti. Let’s remember what happened a year ago — two years ago in China: 80,000 people killed, many thousands of them children. Talk about what happened and also this latest, really, whether you knew him or not, a counterpart, a colleague, someone who’s also investigating this.


Basically a fellow filmmaker. When we got there — I’m just going to give the example in one town — all the buildings in the town were standing except for the school. And over 130 kids were buried alive and killed in this particular school. And the parents suspected shoddy construction. They suspected local corruption and that the officials had taken money that was supposed to be used for the school, put it in their pockets, and built the school out of junk. So when the earthquake happened, kids got killed.

They wanted answers from the government. They demanded answers. They actually went on a march, and we filmed this march. Extraordinary courage on the part of the parents, because the government tried everything they could to stop these people and crack down on them.

Peter, I, Matt O’Neill and Professor Ming Xia were apprehended by thirty-five plainclothes policemen, dragged off to the police station. They said, “Give us your tapes.”

This was something that — you know, the response of the Chinese government to the earthquake was really quite extraordinary and, overall, commendable, especially when you compare it to Katrina. But there were some things that were wrong, and one of the things was the school and all the kids that died, and apparently unnecessarily.

And they can’t tolerate anybody talking about that. They wanted our tapes, and luckily we had shipped our tapes back. So we said, “We’d just love to give you the tapes, but we don’t have them.” And they’ve been systematically beating, arresting and intimidating any filmmaker that has gone near that subject. We basically escaped by the skin of our teeth.


I want to just turn to excerpts from your Oscar-nominated film, China’s Unnatural Disaster: Tears of Sichuan Province.

    GIRL: [translated] Here is my school. Our classroom is on the fourth floor. Fourth floor.

    MAN: [translated] People said it was unsafe, but I did not know.

    GRIEVING MOTHER 1: [translated] We have been devastated by the loss of our child. He just passed his fifteenth birthday. Looking at this, I really want to question the quality of the school building.

    GRIEVING MOTHER 2: [translated] I have no more tears left.


An excerpt of China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province. It was just nominated for an Oscar. Juan?


Peter, if you could talk about that particular school and also your reaction when you hear that someone like Tan Zuoren, who’s been raising the issue of these shabbily constructed schools, ends up being jailed.


Yes. That first shot was a school, and about 300 kids were killed. It took them weeks to finally clear up the bodies. And during that period of time, the government just refused to answer any questions. All these parents want to find out where their kids were. So it was a very, very sad case.

In the last week, two individuals that was investigating, because, after we left, parents continued asking, “For what — what happened?” and that the government refused to give any kind of information. So, many individuals, on their own, investigated, went to the families whose children were killed during the earthquake, and eventually came up with a report. And Tan Zuoren was one of them, and Huang Qi is another one. And before the report could come out, the government seized them, basically accusing them of releasing state secrets. And the tactics they use are pretty harsh. In a way, you know, what we experienced was nothing. They were arrested, without charges, under detention for almost a year. And then, eventually — in the meantime, their relatives do not know where they were and are not allowed to visit them.


You know, your former colleague, Ying Chan —


JON ALPERT: — who was a fellow reporter at the Daily News, she runs the journalism and filmmaking program in Hong Kong University. She sent one of her students up to Sichuan. They grabbed her, and they threw her in jail for four months. Nobody knew where she was. She was in there with murderers and robbers and all sorts of nasty people. They will not tolerate anybody talking about this.

And we’re in touch with the parents. We talked to the parents two days ago. They know the film has been nominated. They’re really excited. They believe that perhaps this is their last chance to reach out to the world and to have the world know what happened.

And it’s really interesting the way the Chinese government can’t tolerate this. When the Academy was streaming the nominations live, it was being broadcast live on state television in China. They thought this was a really big deal. And when our program came up, they pulled the plug, and it went black. They’ve removed all mention of our nomination from state media. And then they realized that was a little heavy-handed. The BBC caught them and basically broadcast that. So they changed the name of the show to “China’s Disaster” not “Unnatural Disaster.” Sometimes they eliminate the entire category, but mostly they just list all the nominees except us.


So I think that the issue here is that the parents knew, from the very beginning. There were a lot of reporters there. There were a lot of filmmakers there to cover this story, mainly Chinese filmmakers. But they all knew. The parents knew, and the filmmakers knew —

AMY GOODMAN: We have twenty seconds.


—- that the Chinese will not allow them -— their footage to be aired. So, ironically, ours is the only document of history. This is the only thing that’s left. And so, it is therefore very, very important for us to continue to push. People in China are pushing, but we have to do our task. This is really very important, because the parents knew, we’re the only ones could let the rest of the world know. We’re the only ones could possibly put some pressure, at least some pressure, on the Chinese government.


Peter Kwong and Jon Alpert, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Again, their documentary China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province was nominated in the short documentary category.

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“China’s Unnatural Disaster”: New HBO Documentary Chronicles Struggles of Grieving Parents Following 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

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