POV: High Tech, Low Life

(Rochester, New York) -- As if China’s government hasn’t had enough trouble maintaining its control of information in the face of rapid economic growth and global integration, it now has to contend with the likes of “Tiger Temple” and “Zola.” These are the Internet pseudonyms of two bloggers who began in 2004 and 2007, respectively, to document and report all the bad news—crime, corruption, economic inequality—that the government doesn’t see fit to print or broadcast. Stephen Maing's High Tech, Low Life, airing Sunday, July 28, 2013 at 11:30 p.m. on WXXI-TV, is the gripping story of how these two men, independently and for different reasons—and using common tools of the Internet age—turned themselves into one-man news stations while skirting government censorship and dodging arrest. They are models for what may be China’s most dangerous advocate of free speech: the citizen reporter.

57-year-old Zhang Shihe, known as "Tiger Temple," is a wandering writer and self-described romantic who earned the title of China’s first citizen reporter after he impulsively documented an unfolding—and unreported—murder in his neighborhood, and 26-year-old Zhou Shuguang, known as "Zola," is a vegetable seller with big dreams who saw an opportunity for fame and fortune in reporting suppressed news throughout China. Both men show via the Internet the kind of scenes the government wants suppressed: poor people clinging to homes facing demolition by developers backed by government officials, the rape and murder of a young girl by an official’s relative, herdsmen deprived of their grazing lands for farms, homeless people living in holes called “dog houses” near Tiananmen Square, the degraded living conditions of migrant construction workers in Beijing.

In the face of such grassroots journalism, the government has deployed the so-called “Great Firewall” Internet censorship system. But Tiger Temple and Zola’s success in getting the news out, armed with nothing more sophisticated than laptops, cellphones and digital cameras—not to mention bicycles—seems to mock the system. 

Playing sometimes like a thriller, sometimes like a step through the digital looking glass, High Tech, Low Life recounts the inspired work of two Chinese citizen reporters who walk a risky line between social commentary and political dissidence. From very different perspectives, they must come to terms with the costs—and for Zola, the potential gains—of an emerging sense of individuality and social responsibility, enabled by widespread access to digital technology. With the explosion of social media use in political events around the world, their work challenges us to reconsider the value, meaning, and future of journalism.

Picture: Zola reports on location in Changsha. 

Credit: Courtesy of Stephen T. Maing, ©MudHorsePictures, LLC.



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