The China Posts — Blogging The News
By Kate LeaverJuly 2, 2012
Blog or breaking news? Even in free-speaking countries, it’s a blurry line, but in China it can be the difference between reading truth and fiction.
It's the middle of the night when Zola wakes to a violent knocking on the roller door, the only thing between him and the cold.
"Who is it?"
"A robber," a man's voice says from the other side.
In a flash, Zola grabs a small handheld camera and fastens it to a chair. He aims it at the door, which is rattling with the force of a robber courteous enough to announce his arrival. Zola's first impulse is to film his every encounter. He's braver, you can tell, knowing that the camera is there. It's as if his many fans are egging him on.
"Who is it? And what the fuck do you want, coming to my home?" he shouts, flushed with his own courage.
"I told you, a robber. I'm here to rob you," comes the voice again.
Zola is unconvinced. He's been half-expecting this visit, living as if each day could be the day police find a reason to arrest him, or worse, stop him from blogging. The midnight assailant leaves, but Zola knows this is a warning straight from the Chinese government.
Five years ago, Zola was selling vegetables on the street from a rickety stall in the Hunan province of China. His real name is Zhou Shuguang, but he prefers to go by Zola. He's now one of China's most popular bloggers — and subject of American director Steve Maing's documentary High Tech Low Life.
Maing followed Zola and another blogger who goes by the name of Tiger Temple for four years, from 2007 to 2011, to make the film. He slept at Zola's house and stayed wherever Tiger found accommodation on the road. He acknowledges that both men's blogs are inherently political, but that's not what drew him to film them.
"When foreign media report on Chinese bloggers, they do so in a similar, politicised context," says Maing. "Everyone is very eager to frame what they are doing within this lens of China moving towards democratisation, and the Twitter revolution. I became interested in the idea, what are the human stories behind headlines like that? So I got to know them as people with families and friends, and how their personal choices inform their political identities."
In 2011 — the year filming ended for Maing, Zola and Tiger — the Chinese government formed the State Internet Information Body to "prevent disruptions to social stability." As a result, all bloggers are now required by law to register their real name in exchange for an ID code that lets them access microblogging sites like Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
In addition, in a bid to control the 300 million Weibo users, the Beijing city government has forbidden posts that "endanger national security" or "destroy national unity." Any comments deemed to enter such dubious territory in an online forum are swiftly deleted by censors, as are any complaints about the regulations themselves.
These laws are what finally drove both Zola and Tiger out of the city. Zola now lives in Taiwan, where he continues his blog in greater safety. Tiger, who had lived in Beijing all his life, moved to rural China to continue his humanitarian work, which is still recorded in his blog.
Whatever restrictions the Chinese government lays down from here, Zola and Tiger's stories have been told — during those four years spent traversing their complicated country with Maing and crew in tow.
As the film begins, we watch Zola slip a map, a pair of travel chopsticks, an anti-spy device, an internet dongle, a card reader the size of a USB stick and a photo of himself with emergency contact details scrawled on the back into a bag. He farewells his parents, both of whom routinely remind him that he should be working for his country, not undermining its authority by posting stories on the internet.
He gets on his bike, essentials fastened to the back, and pedals off to a neighbouring province, chasing a rumour ... He's heard that a young girl has been raped and thrown into a river by the son of a member of the ruling party. Travelling at moderate speed down dirt roads, he's in a race to beat censorship. He needs to get to that crime scene before government officials have a chance to clear the crowds and suppress the story.
He reaches the riverside and starts filming himself at arm's length, poses (somewhat distastefully) by the young girl's coffin which is laced with flowers and surrounded by grieving, angry relatives. He snakes through the crowd, filming people's reactions and documenting what really happened. The girl was murdered, and there are witnesses. He reassures them: "I'm not a reporter, I'm not a reporter."
Steve's camera crew follows.
Hours later, there's a press conference. Officials blithely announce to a small gathering of journalists that the young woman threw herself off the bridge. Even when explicitly asked if she was murdered, they stick to their story. But where was the official's son? Doing push-ups on the bridge moments before this high-school-age girl spontaneously ended her life.
Overnight, Zola's video at the crime scene is viewed 120,000 times. The thrill of truthful reporting spurs him on, and people begin donating money for him to travel to them and cover their stories. He prints T-shirts with his face on them, though he often appears topless, and hapless, in front of his webcam to recount his day's adventures.
Meanwhile in Beijing, Tiger Temple packs his essentials into a bag, strapped to an old pushbike. He's headed into rural China, so he packs a vile of iodine and bandage spray to tend to any injuries, a walking pole, a fountain pen and pot of ink, his camera, his mobile phone and a harmonica, which he says he plays to himself alone in the wilderness.
Steve travels alongside his bicycle, for thousands of miles.
Tiger's real name is Zhang Shihe, but he prefers his fierce pseudonym. He's in his late 50s, but his fitness honed by long-distance cycling belies his age. He became a blogger when he witnessed a murder on the side of a street, and posted the graphic images online. When the police turned up at the scene, they berated Tiger for filming before attending to the victim. Like Zola, Tiger is troubled by the government's disregard for truth and resolves to keep blogging. But he too prefers not to be classified as a journalist. It keeps him safe.
"I don't like to limit myself by admitting to being a citizen journalist. I'm an ordinary citizen, I can report what I see, can't I? If you say you're a citizen journalist, they'll make laws against it," he says.
Both men use any such technicality to protect themselves. The Chinese government has strict rules for censoring journalists, but it hasn't yet worked out quite what to do with bloggers. The infamous Great Firewall of China denies access to Facebook, Twitter and myriad other sites but for now Zola and Tiger Temple's blogs remain online.
"As long as we don't break the rules..." Tiger continues, knowing that the rules of China's blogosphere have not yet been written. The distinction between journalist and blogger is something the rest of the world struggles with, too. But in China, the government encourages uncertainty and fear among bloggers by sending men to intimidate them in the night.
Like Zola, Tiger receives midnight visitors too — 10 of them on one night in 2008. They escorted Tiger out of Beijing in an unmarked van. While in transit, Tiger received 2,000 messages of support from fans of his blog. That popularity is part of Tiger's armor — his restless, loyal followers are disillusioned with China's perpetually cheery media and ready to come to his defense.
The stealth with which officials approached Zola and Tiger exposes their tenuous control of the blogosphere.
"I've done nothing wrong," says Zola. "But if they want to get me, they'll find a reason."
When Zola tries to leave China to attend a bloggers' conference in Germany, he is stopped at border control and told the Public Security Bureau has blacklisted him as "a threat to national security." They offer no further explanation. He tries again, this time to speak at the World Blog Forum in Romania about censorship and is permitted to leave the country. Again there is no further explanation.
Zola also appears at the Chinese Blogger Conference, to demonstrate how to hack into Twitter and circumvent the Great Firewall of China. His latest mission is to train other citizen journalists, as allies and successors.
"They might stop some of us, but they can't stop all of us," he says, defiant.
Although both Zola and Tiger have been forced to base themselves outside Beijing, their blogs survive. The government hasn't yet been able to silence these two very different men, with the same aim: to tell the truth about their lives in China.
Tiger was a teenager during Mao's cultural revolution, he's seen brutal repression before and he believes he is duty-bound to fight it this time around. Zola is the first to admit he is selfish, as children of the 1980s are so widely reputed to be. His motivation is less political than Tiger's — and he has his own line of T-shirts and flags with his face on them to prove it.
A generation apart, these men also share the abject loneliness of reporting the truth online; and, when they're on film, both show an endearing tendency to generate their own soundtrack, singing heartily as they travel between stories.