Zhou Shuguang steadies his camera on the stone steps of the Great Wall of China, sets the timer, steps back and jumps. The resulting photograph of him seemingly bounding over the wall makes it on to his blog. But it is more than a holiday snap, it is a defining symbol of his struggle as a citizen journalist working in the repressive media environment of modern day China.
Stephen Maing’s powerful new documentary film High Tech/Low Life is currently doing the rounds on the documentary festival circuit and played at London’s Frontline Club this week. The feature length film tells the tale of two bloggers in China, following their lives as they attempt to tell the stories of those around them.
The first protagonist we meet is the energetic, 26 year old Zhou Shuguang, or Zola as he is known on his blog. Following a montage of fuzzy TV screens blaring out government lines on the state news channels, we cut to Zola, stood waist deep in the lush green of a paddy field, tapping away at his incongrous iPad.
‘I live in an environment where most of the news is good news,’ he writes, his words typing out on the screen. ‘In my opinion that news is crap.’
The news in China is closely regulated by state-run agencies such as the General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television. In a society where the internet is highly controlled, and official news channels are also restricted, hearing an alternate voice can prove difficult.
The solution, it seems, can come in the unlikeliest of packages.
A vegetable seller by day, Zola transforms himself into a dissent blogger on the side. Armed with a stash of equipment and technology that even Batman would be proud of, he sets out on his spluttering motorbike to cover stories about put-upon construction workers, evictions of Beijing residents for the Olympic Games, even the mysterious death of a teenage girl, who Zola suspects was raped and murdered by the son of a local government official.
Each story is filmed on a camera, tweeted and posted on Zola’s blog. Despite government restrictions he has found a way to harness proxy servers to keep his work online for a long as possible. Even when it is taken down he can take solace in the knowledge that word has already spread around the net.
‘The truth is I don’t know what journalism is,’ Zola says, ‘I just record what I witness.’
However alongside his zeal and daring there is a lonely and rather narcissistic side of Zola, which creeps into the film. He is ever present in his news stories and keen to build something of a cult of personality, openly admitting that his ‘goal is to be famous’. One image sums it up perfectly: dismayed by his home life he camps alone on the beach. Next to his one man tent he has pitched a flag with his own face on. A kind of King Canute ego fluttering before the encroaching waves, at once admirably brave and oddly self-aggrandising.
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Zola’s counter point in the film is 57 year old Zhang Shihe, or Tiger Temple as he is known online. Tiger is also a blogger and citizen journalist, although he takes a much more involved and long-term approach to his reporting. He came to the job when, in 2004 he witnessed a grizzly murder and after calling the police photographed the events and blogged about them.
While Zola zips from A to B on his motorbike the viewer watches as Tiger slowly and steadily wobbles along misty stretches of country roads on his push-bike. He cycles for miles and miles all over China, following stories and reporting what he sees on a battered, hand-held video camera.
On his travels he documents the complaints and worries of the many Chinese citizens who feel voiceless and abandoned. Farmers talk to him about the agricultural policies which have dictated their farming habits, forcing them to plant certain crops. Residents of a small village show him how their land has been decimated by sewage water flooding in from the local towns. Homeless people on Tiananmen Square reveal the ‘dog hole’ pits they call home, which the government tear down when they can.
‘All I do is speak on their behalf’, he says modestly, insisting that even the smallest issues he covers are illustrative of wider problems.
A cultural shift
Along with the boundaries of journalism and blogging, the film also explores the generational differences and approaches to reporting embodied in the two bloggers. Zola’s is very much an individualistic mentality, rejecting the personal-submission-to-the-state ideology of past Chinese generations. His approach is described by one blogger as ‘outrageous and Westernised’, but nonetheless garners him support and followers. Indeed, the blogosphere and Twitter personality cult plays right into this ego-centricity.
Comparatively Tiger’s approach constantly factors in the wider societal impact of his work. The juxtaposition of the two bloggers, in its way, illustrates a paradigm shift in the very concept of citizenship in China, away from the collective-whole to a more individualised focus. A shift, perhaps facilitated by the chipping away of state-control and the freedom of information leaking out through the internet.
Silencing the whispers
But reporting in China is not as simple as turning on a camera, and clicking the mouse a few times. In a society where communication is monitored closely, blogging the complaints of others can bring danger.
China was ranked 174th in Reporters Without Borders’ most recent Press Freedom Index. Only Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea ranked lower. Reporters Without Borders website claims that, between 2011-2012, in China ‘the government responded to regional and local protests and to public impatience with scandals and acts of injustice by feverishly reinforcing its system of controlling news and information, carrying out extrajudicial arrests and stepping up internet censorship.’
The film follows both bloggers over a number of years, in which time Zola has a threatening visit in the middle of the night from a man sent to rob him. Unsurprisingly, the entire sequence is documented, filmed on his Blackberry. The young blogger also finds he is not allowed to leave the country when he attempts to attend a bloggers conference in Germany. He is told he is considered a threat to national security. Tiger, meanwhile is collected in the middle of the night by government officials, told he must leave Beijing during the National Party Conference, bundled in to a van and driven away.
Somewhat frustratingly, the film, focused as it is on the personal journeys of the two protagonists, never gets to exploring the wider situation of media and news gathering in China. This is a complex history and one which continues to evolve daily. The film’s director Maing told the Frontline audience there are regular occurrences of journalist and editors pushing the boundaries of what they can report, many being fired, but slowly widening the forum in the process.
In fact, the situation has worsened recently. While the Arab Spring provided a blue-print for social media activism for many around the world, in China it has resulted in a clamp down of internet freedom. Tiger has had to pack up his home and has moved to the countryside where he feels safer. Zola moved to Taiwan and now blogs from there.
Indeed, the film itself has not found the smoothest route. It was recently shown at the Sheffield Documentary Festival but only after a delegation of Chinese commissioning editors tried to persuade the festival to drop the film, and eventually boycotted the event. However, Maing is confident the film will make its way around China eventually. ‘I have no doubt it will be pirated, and that’s not a situation I’m unhappy with,’ he tells the audience. A sympathetic university in Beijing has also voiced hopes to screen the film to students there.
Either way, Tiger Temple and Zola will both be blogging about the film, and their continued struggle for press freedom in China.
Read more about High Tech/ Low Life here.
Zola’s blog is here, (mostly in Chinese.)
The film will be aired again at Open City Docs Festival in London on Saturday June 23rd.
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