High Tech, Low Life opens with a young man tapping away at his iPad. Completely absorbed in his work, he could be a young iPad junkie anywhere, except he’s standing in the middle of a field and tapping out notes without a shirt on. This young man is Zola, aka Zhou Shuguang, one of China’s most prominent citizen journalists, and on any given day, you’ll see him using an iPad, iPhone or any other tech device to report on what he’s seeing.
Since 2004, Zola has become one of the better known names of China’s blogosphere by writing about the injustices he’s seen around China. His Twitter account, though blocked in the mainland along with the rest of Twitter, commands some 38,000 followers, with whom he engages almost daily.
“I knew I needed to get to know this guy better,” noted Stephen Maing, the director of a new film, High Tech, Low Life, in which Zola stars. Maing discovered Zola’s work when reading news about how bloggers had helped expose a case of wrongful eviction in Chongqing. He reached out from there and developed a correspondence.
Zola plays a game on his iPad in the midst of field work.
Zola is joined in the film by Tiger Temple, aka Zhang Shihe, a blogger based in Beijing. Tiger, from a generation closer to Zola’s father, prefers biking around the country. He carries a small handheld video camera, which he uses to interview citizens and tell their stories. Both men, when asked, don’t necessarily identify as journalists or bloggers, but that’s often a way to ensure they don’t provoke press-weary law enforcement and censors.
Maing and crew followed the two bloggers for four years, capturing nearly 600 hours of footage across China and even internationally. We see Zola visiting a Nail Household in Beijing, where a man being evicted from his property has placed photos of Communist Party officials in an effort to stop the bulldozers from tearing down his home. Tiger Temple shares images of a murder he witnessed and photographed, only to be shooed away and scolded by local police.
High Tech, Low Life comes amidst the context of a country rapidly joining the internet. As little as five years ago, shortly before filming for High Tech began, China’s internet population comprised 2% of the world’s internet users. Today, that number is 8%. According to recently-released statistics, nearly 515 million people in China currently have access to the web, and most of them are doing so via mobile phones.
It’s in this milieu that Zola and Tiger Temple operate. As public figures on the internet, they serve as storytellers in a country where most media stories must be approved by government officials.
“It’s about having access to these new evolving technologies,” Maing noted of the film. “It’s also a combination of offline and online activity. It’s a real social art. They’re taking these tools and learning how to use them well and embedding themselves with people.”
Zola jumps across the Great Wall, enacting the common Chinese euphemism of “jumping the wall,” i.e., evading the strict firewalls in the country.
Indeed, while the film frequently lingers on digital cameras and mobile phones and uses on-screen text to develop the narrative, its ultimate power comes from how it humanizes two bloggers. They’re both charismatic presences on camera, and their journeys through China reveal a common commitment to breaking past the mores of self-censorship and slowly opening up the country to more and more discussions about its social injustices.
“Behind these many headlines that we read about Chinese activism or Chinese new media are people,” Maing told me. And for Chinese speakers, it’s quite easy to reach both bloggers, who maintain active presences on Twitter and Twitter-like microblogs in China. To increase access for foreign viewers, Maing hopes soon to be able to offer translations of their posts, and humanize them in the process.
“Our goal was to make a film that would relate to these people that are being politicized as agents of change. But there are also very human stories behind these issues.”
All images courtesy of High Tech, Low Life.