The story of two Chinese citizen journalists

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A new documentary about two Chinese citizen journalists was presented earlier this month during the Human Rights Weekend 2013 in Amsterdam. "High Tech, Low Life" - an independent film made by Korean-American director Stephen Maing - portrays the lives of “Tiger Temple” and “Zola”.

By Lan Zhang

57-year-old Zhang Shihe, known to his readers as “Tiger Temple”, first made headlines in 2004, when he photographed a murder scene in downtown Beijing and published the photos online. His post caused a sensation and made him famous as China's first "citizen journalist". Nowadays, he makes lengthy journeys on bike through the countryside to report on the lives of the rural poor and urban struggles on his blog.

30-year-old Zhou Shuguang, better known by his Internet nickname “Zola”, hails from Ningxiang in Hunan Province. Although he has only a middle school education, he rose to fame reporting on a family in Chongqing that refused to abandon their home for redevelopment, persisting even when construction workers had cleared a ten-meter deep pit around their house. 

The film
Stephen Maing interweaves the stories of these two citizen journalists in the film. Since 2008, Maing has spent four years following the work and life of Tiger Temple and Zola. Although their stories are widely divergent, they pursue the same goal: to use their digital cameras to unearth stories that the official news media overlook or cover up. As a consequence, their blogs are censored and often shut down. They themselves live under surveillance and are subject to harassment. To highlight the odds the journalists are up against, the film occasionally shows footage from the official news media. The official propaganda and the bleak reality of the two bloggers form an ironic contrast.

The journalists’ noble pursuits, however, are in conflict with their personal life. Tiger Temple deliberately keeps his family at a distance, so that he doesn’t “get them into trouble”. Zola’s work prevents him from starting a family and living the stable, normal life that his parents wish for. Moreover, his parents fear for his safety.

Behind the screens
After the screening in Amsterdam, Maing told the audience how the movie was made. The idea of the film occurred to him in 2007, when he read a New York Times article  on the house in Chongqing. The article mentioned that Chinese bloggers were among the first to report the story. Impressed, Maing sought out these bloggers on the internet. He came across the young blogger Zola, whose blog tagline was: “You never know what you can do till you try”. Intrigued, he emailed him, and quickly received an invitation: “Welcome to China.”

That’s how the production of the film began. For four years, Maing followed Zola’s adventure. Together, they went to Zola’s hometown in rural Hunan, then to the province capital of Changsha, and finally to bustling Beijing. He witnessed the personal growth of the young man from a fame-hunter to a fighter for freedom of speech and information. During the process, he also came across Tiger Temple, the other protagonist of his documentary. Both Zola and Tiger Temple are public figures whose reports are politically sensitive in China. A foreign film crew following them around could have attracted more trouble. But luckily, Maing’s Asian looks allowed him to pass as Chinese, and they avoided attention by bringing along only the bare minimum of filming equipment.

Generation Gap
Tiger Temple and Zola have very different personalities. Tiger Temple is composed and introverted. What concerns him most are ordinary Chinese people and social issues. As he says in the film, “Let me spit out the truth. I don’t have long to live anyway”. Unlike the humanitarian “Tiger Temple”, “Zuola” adopts a more flamboyant style. He likes to do on-the-spot interviews and his initial motivation in blogging was, as he put it, “to make myself famous”.

Towards the end of the film, the two journalists meet and have a thought-provoking conversation. In the conversation, Tiger Temple calls Zola a “naughty warrior” who battles the authorities with a playful attitude. Zola, however, emphasises his “selfishness” and individualism. He believes that these are the cornerstone of democracy and freedom.

For Maing, the encounter with Tiger Temple was a great stroke of luck, as he provided a perfect counter-balance to young Zola. Zola represents the post-80s generation, which shares a sense of uncertainty towards their time and position in history but is nonetheless oriented towards the future. Tiger Temple represents an older generation, more prone to reflect on the past. The future, to some extent, confuses him.

According to Maing, the title of film, High Tech, Low Life, captures a paradox faced by the two citizen journalists. On the one hand, they use high tech gadgets to record China’s social issues; on the other hand, they are reduced to a poverty-stricken life. Maing was deeply touched by their struggle for freedom of the press and their desire to make a difference.