"High Tech, Low Life" -- a new doc looks at citizen journalism in China
[photo: Alan Chin]
A review essay of the new documentary High Tech, Low Life
*with a bonus clip (at right) not in the film. (Help get the film to a theater near you.)
Plus, see the infograph about China's online population--representing more than one in every five internet users in the world.
By Celia Farber for Newsmotion
A charming and stunningly shot documentary by Korean American filmmaker Stephen Maing, High Tech, Low Life, which premiered in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival and earlier this month won the Jury Prize at the Independent Film Festival Boston, provides an intimate look at modern day China, and the role of citizen journalism in transforming the nation, notorious for press and Internet censorship.
Though China has one of the most elaborate Internet surveillance and censorship systems in the world, and continues to be one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders, this is a parallel story that is full of surprises, and glints of hope.
Maing focuses not on high-stakes political dissidents, but on the growing phenomenon of ordinary Chinese citizens documenting local scandals and environmental problems, within the framework of the law, and doing so successfully. It was one such blogger, for instance, Ma Jun, whose blog posts about conditions at Apple’s Chinese manufacturing plants forced the company to provide more details about pollution and labor standards in its supply chain. Another, 65 year old Liu Fatang, a forestry official and bureaucrat turned environmental activist, reported on his blog that Chinese developers had destroyed one of the world's last groves of water coconut trees to make space for a yacht marina. His stories were then followed by newspaper and television coverage in China, and garnered him the citizen journalism prize at the Chinese Environmental Press Awards, co-sponsored by the Guardian.
“Citizen journalism” is the worst thing ever to happen to corrupt officials, as it potentially transforms citizens from passive victims to active participants in change. “When every Chinese citizen becomes a reporter, what will happen to China?” asks an article in The Global Times from 2009.
High Tech, Low Life, avoids these big questions, but by getting right in under the hearts and minds of its two central characters, we understand so much more than we would if the film were more politically aggressive.
[photo courtesy of High Tech, Low Life]
The film’s main subjects – 27 year old Zhou Shuguang (aka Zola), and 57-year old Zhang Shihe (aka Tiger Temple, pictured above) – are both pioneers and heroes of citizen journalism in China. The soft-hearted, chain smoking Tiger Temple is credited as China’s first citizen journalist, after he took photos of a gory murder scene on a Beijing street in 2004, and posted them on his blog "24 Hours Online.” (View the post here, though note that it is graphic.)
One of the things that makes the film so compelling is how relaxed Zola and Tiger Temple seem to be about their self-invented, self-assigned forms of local expose journalism. They blog – with photos, videos and text -- about suspicious murders, environmental hazards, illegal evictions of local people caught in re-construction zones, and more. They travel by bicycle, motorbike, bus, and on foot—simply asking questions, and reporting what they find out. Tens of thousands of hits to their sites follow. In some cases, Zola says, people send him money to come and report on a local scandal. It is journalism as its most basic, elemental, humane, and vital—all pretentions stripped.
“The truth is, I don’t know what journalism is, I just record what I see,” says Zola. It is precisely this attitude of un-journalism that makes the viewer cheer for the resurrection of redemptive journalism, in China of all places. Paradoxes like this twine through the film.
Crossing thousands of miles in Hunan Province, his mother’s scolding at his back, armed with a few tools—anti-spy device, consumer grade digital and cell phone cameras, portable chopsticks, and a windbreaker—Zola, abandoning his vegetable hawking business, takes a Gonzo, tongue in cheek approach, using satire and send-up to make his points. He doesn't seem politically outraged at his government or its repression, so much as utterly restless, perhaps bored, able to see right through it-- and determined to get the upper hand. If he is a reflection of his generation, the Chinese government has yet another enormous problem to deal with. Zola assumes his position in this evolving, techno-centric, modern media world with a post-Maoist “selfishness” which he describes as the first important step in “breaking down the communist mindset.”
Zola is harassed, detained, and occasionally blocked from traveling, but his impish personality makes his battle with the government feel almost like a lighthearted game of cat and mouse.
Tiger Temple, by contrast, is not only thirty years older than Zola, but also infinitely more freighted with China’s recent history. His father was purged during the Cultural Revolution, and he tells of being incomprehensibly tortured during those early days. His family elsewhere (he doesn’t want them to be harassed for his work,) he lives alone with his beloved cat Mongolia, who accompanied him on his earlier travels on a heavily saddled bicycle, and was his first reporter. He invented a voice for Mongolia to report on things. “My hope was they wouldn’t censor a talking cat. And they didn’t,” he says.
When the two share their experiences, Tiger Temple lovingly disabuses Zola of his affectation that he “just wants to be famous.”
“You are a playful warrior,” he says, looking at him with a wry smile, “But you’re still a warrior."
“These are not the high profile Chinese dissidents we often hear about in the news like Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei,” says Maing in an interview with Newsmotion. “They are ordinary citizens exercising their basic rights to free speech. As bloggers they assert that they are not breaking any laws by writing about their lives and observations in society. It’s not a story of one man taking on the government. They’re asking: How do we work from within the system and make a difference? Something Zola points out is that there is freedom of speech and there are civil liberties that people in China don’t exercise because of self-censorship, which is really one of the more pervasive forms of censorship.”
Nor is the Chinese government taking a Perestroika laissez faire position on all of this. Over 500 million people in China now have Internet access. If the government could crack down more, they would. But they can’t. The easy access to technology makes it impossible. So they pick their battles. The government’s worst fear is that if more and more stories of corruption are heard, it could have a “Chinese Spring” on its hands.
The sweeping backdrop of the film, the blue-thread commonality of the wrongs being committed, is the betrayal of the Chinese people, who gave their lives and souls for the Maoist communist revolution, only to find themselves increasingly swept away like detritus by the bursting forces of capitalist expansion.
The film’s most powerful, ironic moment may be the scene where local Beijing citizens are being displaced from their homes to make way for new construction before the Olympics. Frantic to stop the bulldozers, a local man has an ingenious idea: to plaster posters of Mao and other Chinese Communist Party leaders on his home’s outer wall as protection. Upon arriving and seeing the posters, the bulldozer operator is simply paralyzed. He can’t crush the wall. The bulldozers retreat, at least for the day. Zola is there to document it. Could you ask for a better crystalization of the clash between old China, new China, and the small, (or not so small) triumphs of citizen journalism?
The cameras are the new gentle bulldozers. Change comes slowly but inevitably, and the old guard is pitied a bit, like an ancient Tiger that does not yet know it has lost its teeth.
Celia Farber is an award-winning journalist, author, and editor based in New York City, who grew up in Sweden and New York City. She has written for Harper’s Esquire, SPIN, Rolling Stone, Salon, New York Press, and others. She hosts a show called “Radio Free Science” every Friday at 3 pm on ProgressiveRadioNetwork.com. In 2008, Celia Farber won the Semmelweis International Society’s Clean Hands Award For Investigative Journalism. Her book, Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS was published by Melville House Press in 2006. She is the editor of The Truth Barrier.