Tan Zuoren (谭作人) is a prominent environmental activist and writer from Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Tan is known for compiling a roster of the children who had died in the shoddily-built schoolhouses that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and publishing online a “Citizens’ Independent Investigative Report.” These actions angered the Sichuan authorities but earned him the name “Good Man of Sichuan” from the people.
A pioneer in Chinese environmental rights defense, Tan has dedicated himself to this work since the 1980s. He has actively engaged in public discourse and offered advice and suggestions on local development projects. Tan also initiated the “City of Peace” citizens’ action, and has been called an “enlightened citizen” by the Chengdu media.
Tan was publicly criticized by the Sichuan provincial government for participating in the 1989 Democracy Movement. Over the years, he has continued to commemorate the June Fourth crackdown in different ways. In 2007, he posted on overseas websites his essay “1989: Bearing Witness to the Ultimate Beauty—Diary of an Eyewitness from the Square” (1989：见证最后的美丽——一个目击者的广场日记). In 2008, he participated in a June Fourth commemorative blood donation drive in Chengdu’s Tianfu Square. In 2009, he issued the “Proposals for Commemorative Activities for the 20th Anniversary of June Fourth,” in which he called for a “June Fourth Worldwide Chinese People’s Blood Donation Drive” to continue the spirit of the 1989 Democracy Movement.
After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Tan Zuoren devoted himself to the relief effort and to investigating the causes of school building collapse in order to pursue justice for the children who died. In March 2009, he was arrested by the Chengdu Municipal Public Security Bureau; in February 2010, he was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” on the basis of his June Fourth commemorative articles and appeal actions. He was sentenced to five years in prison and three years of deprivation of political rights.
For those who know Tan, he is compassionate and courageous, but unassuming and never boastful. During his final statement in court, he said, “I have done nothing but a citizen’s duty: holding fast to common sense and telling the truth.” While in prison, he told his family in a letter to his daughter: “I can say without any compunction that I have done no wrong to the society. But I have done you wrong and ask your forgiveness, you who I love the most. You are my tears.”