Thursday, September 12, 2013

High Tech, Low Life

by Drew Martin
I recently watched Stephen Maing’s documentary High Tech, Low Life, which follows two Chinese bloggers as they cover stories that their press would not touch with a ten-foot pole. The 50-something Shihe Zhang, a.k.a. Tiger Temple is considered China’s first “citizen reporter,” and started blogging about sociopolitical issues through his cat Mongo (Mongolia) because he figured the government could not censor a talking cat.

Zhang spends a lot of time on his bike, covering thousands of miles in order to listen to farmers who were once glorified during the Cultural Revolution but are now irrelevant peasants in the backdrop of the country’s boom times. We travel with him to a cluster of remote homes that were flooded by sewage from a nearby city so he can interview the people affected by the waste.

The other citizen reporter Maing follows is the cocky, young Shuguang Zhou, a.k.a. Zola. When Zhang and Zola first meet in person, the veteran calls his younger counterpart a “playful warrior.” While Zhang is more insightful, Zola is self promotional. He even takes a smiling left-handed selfie by the coffin of a young woman who was raped then murdered by an official’s son. It is an absurd, thoughtless shot but then we see him reviewing the comments to his blog. “The picture of you standing and smiling in front of the coffin makes me sick. You are disrespectful of the dead.” He pauses and absorbs it. This kind of youthful misstep is instrumental to his development.

I understand where Tiger Temple is coming from. He gets much more involved than I do. But readers with short attention spans, like me, just want to know six things about an incident: time, place, character, cause, development, and conclusion. Let readers figure out the meaning for themselves.

Zola quips that China has two formidable walls, the Great Wall and the Great Firewall. He takes a self-portrait in which he appears to be leaping over the Great Wall. It is a wonderful metaphor for his freedom of speech. Zhang and Zola face countless obstacles. Zhang is pushed out of Beijing, and Zola is kept from leaving the country to attend a conference in Germany. Following the Arab Spring, the Chinese government responded with the televised statement by a very calm lady:

Peace and stability are common aspirations of the Chinese people. Therefore, this kind of agitation is an act of vanity. So anybody seeking parallels with events in the Middle East or North Africa will be sorely disappointed.

By the end of the film Zhang returns to his journalistic bummels, and Zola moves to Taiwan where he blogs and offers social media training.

What I really like about this documentary is that it shows how state censorship can only be opposed when an individual moves past self-censorship.