High Tech, Low Life (China/USA, 2012)

Stephen Maing’s timely and fascinating documentary High Tech, Low Life, examines the subject of journalism and internet censorship in China through the eyes and experiences of two very different citizen journalists.  Both are people from humble backgrounds who found a new calling using the power of blogging and the internet to uncover stories hidden from the public by the government and to give other people like themselves (often in worse circumstances) a voice and an outlet for their grievances that they have been denied in official channels.  High Tech, Low Life had its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

27-year-old Zhou Shuguang, known by the blogger handle “Zola,” before embarking on his new internet life, was a vegetable seller from Fengmuqiao, Hunan Province.  “I used to be a nobody before I discovered the internet,” he says by way of introduction.  After deciding on impulse to investigate the forced eviction of citizens of a neighboring province by city developers, and posting what he found on his blog, the overwhelming response and the measure of fame he received encouraged him to pursue citizen journalism full time.  The next major case we see him reporting on is the rape and murder of a young girl by a high official’s relative, and the apparent subsequent cover-up of this crime.  This episode is illuminating not only for its demonstration of Zola’s tenacious efforts to expose the government’s complicity in protecting well-connected criminals, but also the potentially negative aspects of Zola’s attention-seeking personality. Zola gets his information by disavowing any sort of journalistic identity, posing as simply a curious onlooker and blogger.  He attends the dead girl’s public wake, and rather ill-advisedly snaps a photo of himself smiling by the girl’s coffin, drawing an outraged comment on his blog condemning his lack of respect for the dead.  Certainly, there is an egocentric aspect to Zola’s activities: he often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with his own image, and at one point he takes a picture of himself that makes it look as if he is leaping over the Great Wall of China, which he makes into a large poster that he displays at a Chinese blogger conference.  However, he consciously sees himself as a representative of the youth of China, with their distracted, short attention spans, and his brash, outsized antics seem designed to appeal to them.  And of course, it’s not only about fame, since there are safer and less controversial ways of achieving fame than flouting censorship; he is no activist, but he tirelessly strives to bring to light practices of corruption and exploitation in his society that are kept from the public.

57-year-old Zhang Shihe, known as “Tiger Temple,” lives in Beijing, and has a much more low-key personality than the younger Zola.  Similarly to Zola, he got into citizen journalism pretty much by accident: he witnessed a brutal murder being committed in public and posted stills on his blog.  It was eventually taken down, but not before being circulated widely by others on the internet. Tiger Temple finds the outlet for literary expression and his wish to help others less fortunate that had heretofore eluded him, regularly traveling on his bike to the countryside and reporting on farmers who have been neglected and ill-treated by government authorities.  He interviews and reports on people who have had their land used as dumping grounds for toxic industrial and human wastes, and on those who have suffered the broken promises of government to assist them during changing agrarian policies. Tiger Temple’s age and personal background provide a sense of history and cultural context that forms a counterpoint to Zola’s relative inexperience. Tiger Temple’s family suffered from persecution during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, in which his family lost everything and he became homeless; thereafter Tiger Temple embarked on the itinerant lifestyle that he practices today. Tiger Temple, also in contrast to Zola, sees his brand of journalism as activism and advocacy for the people he reports on.  He arranges for legal representation for the farmers, and he also tries to help the homeless in Beijing around Tiananmen Square find housing after the city destroys their makeshift shelters.

The film alternates between Zola and Tiger Temple’s separate trajectories, until the two finally meet at a Chinese blogger’s conference.  During their meeting, Tiger Temple sizes up Zola immediately: he calls him a “playful warrior,” a great phrase that perfectly describes Zola’s approach to his journalistic activities.  Zola is also quite self-aware of his own generation: “We’re selfish,” he says of himself and others of his age; he sees this attitude as the first step in “breaking out of the Communist mindset.”

Zola and Tiger Temple are far from fire-breathing radicals, but their activities in reporting uncensored news nevertheless puts them squarely on the government authorities’ radar.  Even though both are careful not to call themselves “journalists” to avoid government regulation and censorship, this doesn’t prevent them from regularly being followed during their travels and having their plans thwarted.  Zola is refused permission to leave the country to attend a blogger’s conference in Germany, and Tiger Temple is detained in the middle of the night and forced to leave Beijing during a national conference.  Their efforts to evade the “Great Firewall,” China’s massive internet censorship mechanism, by providing information unfiltered by the state, cause them to be regarded as threats to national security.  The heat on them only increases during such sensitive times as the Beijing Olympics and the state uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the so-called “Arab Spring.”

As indicated in title High Tech, Low Life, Stephen Maing gives us a through sense of how the latest technological tools can be used to illuminate the lives of those who live far from the places where such tools are commonly available.  In China’s case, many of these people are those who have been left behind, and often trampled under, in the wake of the country’s rapid economic progress.  High Tech, Low Life travels from Beijing to the remote countryside, binding the experiences of the two contrasting blogger personalities who are its subjects with evocative visuals that vividly illustrate the social context that surrounds these two men and their search for the truth.

Christopher Bourne is a film critic, editor, and blogger based in New York City. His articles have appeared in Senses of Cinema, The Brooklyn Rail, Meniscus Magazine, Twitch, and other publications. He blogs on film at The Bourne Cinema Conspiracy.