Bitten by Truth
'High Tech, Low Life' explores citizen reporting in China
Zhou Shuguang seems like an unlikely enemy of the state. He runs a mobile grocery in the People's Republic of China and keeps a personal blog. "The truth is, I don't know what journalism is," he tells his camera, but that has not stopped him from becoming one of China's first citizen reporters.
Truth, as High Tech, Low Life shows, is a dangerous beast. The Chinese government, like all dictatorships, knows it. China's bloggers like Zhang Shihe, who writes under the nom de plume Tiger Temple, are learning that lesson. He squats in flax fields along the Yellow River as farmers describe how they are crushed by their government – and, increasingly, by Beijing's corporate allies. He has become their father confessor and itinerant legal advisor, telling documentarian Stephen Maing, "I feel a sense of responsibility beyond just reporting on them." He also knows when he is being trailed by intelligence agencies, proving the dangers of his adopted trade. If a respected Internet activist like Aaron Swartz can be hounded to his death by federal agents in the U.S. over academic papers, imagine the peril faced by unsanctioned reporters in one of the most repressive nations on Earth.
China has a schizophrenic relationship with the Internet. It sees the commercial advantages, but blocks its citizens from viewing tens of thousands of common websites, and international civil rights groups estimate there are 40,000 police and intelligence officers patrolling the Web for dissidents. Just asking questions is bad enough, but to put the answers on the Internet is an invitation to repression. The idea that a couple of amateur bloggers, traversing the nation on bicycles, reporting with cell phones and battered digital cameras, could be a threat to the Chinese government seems laughable. Yet that's how they are treated, as China replaces the Great Wall with the Great Firewall.
As High Tech, Low Life shows, truth is a dangerous beast, and the wrong people can get bitten. n