“I used to be a nobody,” says a voice. “Until I discovered the internet.” So begins High Tech, Low Life, a documentary about two Chinese bloggers who enjoy mini celebrity in China as citizen journalists, journeying by foot and by bike to expose social injustice--stories like land grabs and pollution--with a mixture of humor and outrage.
The voice belongs to Zhou Shuguang, a twenty-something who calls himself Zola, and, in his rabble-raising, simultaneously pushes against the boundaries of his life as a vegetable seller in rural Hunan Province. The other blogger is Zhang Shihe, or Tiger Temple, a man close to 60 who has experienced the darkest moments of China’s last century, and at one point lands himself under house arrest. None of this is enough to quell his verve, though – among other winking capers, he tests the limits of government censorship by blogging under the voice of his cat.
The stakes for bloggers and other would-be free speakers in China are high and ever-changing. In just the last few days, Weibo accounts (Chinese Twitter equivalent) of several prominent Chinese bloggers and activists have been shut down. Meanwhile, protests have sprung up in Guangzhou Province, in solidarity with the country's fearless investigative newspaper, Southern Weekly, in its editorial clash against new government censors, while on the Western front, Google appears to have backed down in its own ongoing standoff against Chinese censorship, by no longer alerting users in China when keyword searches are being censored.
The film, which opens Wednesday, January 9 at the IFC Center, is the first feature documentary by Brooklyn-based filmmaker Stephen Maing. I spoke to him about the film, censorship, and how criticism and dissent is managing to survive even as the powers that be reinforce the Great Firewall.
Motherboard: How did you first get interested in this topic?
Steve Maing: In 2007 I had read this article in the Times that was about an eminent domain case in the city of Chongqing, and that article mentioned that Chinese bloggers were the first to spread the news. So I was curious who these Chinese bloggers were and did a quick web search, which led me to a young man named Zola. He had reported on the story after the State-run media stopped covering it. He caught my attention and I was curious who this guy was who had taken his savings from a vegetable-selling business to travel to a neighboring province and check it out, as he said, and see how he could help out. So that was my initial entry point.
The Chongqing "nailhouse"
I reached out to him, we corresponded by email, then I found myself traveling to China for different reasons and thought, well maybe I’ll look into this idea. I’d already been interested in this idea of Asian youth culture so I thought, maybe to do something about this new world of the Internet, and how young people around the world were using the web, was a very vague idea for a film. I also had this weird interest in cranes, and thought China would be a great location to film something about development and this visual structure that we see in every skyline in every urban city.
Zola was like, "hey, let’s meet up," and we met at a Starbucks. Just hearing him talk, and hearing in particular this story that he had just come back from reporting on, immediately made me feel like, okay I have to drop everything and just hang out with him. And he was very excited about the idea that a foreign filmmaker would be interested in his story and he very much wanted to share that.
We just started filming and then along the way he wanted to meet Tiger Temple. I didn’t know who Tiger Temple was at the time, but we went to his apartment and because they were going to talk about a sensitive case, I shut off my camera. It wasn’t until later when we were researching this idea of adding additional characters that we came across Tiger and his work again and contacted him. When we met, he was really excited by the idea of being filmed and it was immediately obvious that he had a really rich, exciting thing going on.
Tiger definitely balances out the film.
Yeah – you can tell Zola on his own is pretty unbelievable to just watch and listen to. He had no shortage of funny and interesting things to say and has a very unique perspective on a whole range of subjects. But it became apparent over time that his story alone was only scratching at the surface of what was a much larger cultural story, one about this idea that he’s a product of a history and moment much bigger than him, and there was almost this changing of the guard happening, not to mention generational tensions within his own life that were difficult to decipher.
So stumbling on Tiger was fortunate because Tiger Temple was everything we needed to help decode what was going on with Zola, and vice versa. Here are these two guys working towards this common goal, yet one [Zola] is looking singularly forward with almost a disregard for China’s long history. And then there was Tiger who interpreted everything through the lens of history and whose family had suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution. Tiger considers himself a wanderer in his old age, the way he was forced to wander in his teens to avoid being persecuted. Everything immediately became much richer once we had a second blogger.
Zola speaks amazing English for a vegetable seller from Hunan. That scene when he speaks English at a conference in Romania is like, whoa.
I know, I should have maybe included scenes where he’s watching American movies and practicing his English. But I would say a lot probably came from hanging out with me. We spent a lot of time together. If you’re down to hang out the way Zola wants to hang out you build a camaraderie really quickly. He enjoys destroying people at ping-pong, and he likes to show you all the cool stuff he can do. It’s highly, highly entertaining. He’s a smart guy and picks things up pretty quickly so he was learning things from the news and entertainment he was consuming and also web-based language tools.
It’s also interesting that programming code is all in English and a lot of those manuals and instructions for executing certain commands and functions, you learn in English. So that was a fascinating moment to see him writing code, commands I don’t even understand.
Maybe he would have been a computer science geek in another life…
Or a rock star if he could sing better. I don’t know what he would be. A horse jockey? He kind of seems to want to do it all, a real renaissance man. He’d be like, "You want to hear this song by the Eagles? I can play it." Then he would pick up his guitar and play "Desperado."
He’s very charming. I couldn’t help thinking the whole film about all the girls that must fling themselves at him online.
Oh yeah. There was this great scene where he goes to meet this girl who’s a fan of his and… it did happen quite a few times. But a lot of times they approach him kind of at arm’s length, cautiously, because he’s really very forward. Not in like a creepy way, but he likes to tease people quite a bit. It was really entertaining. There was so much material that in an ideal world would have made it in. It’s too bad his dating life couldn’t have been more of a feature. He was pretty open about liking pretty girls, wanting to be famous, and wanting to earn some money.
I think it’s interesting that Zola is in Taiwan now. Especially in light of the perennial debate--with Mo Yan, who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and with dissidents like Ai Weiwei and the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng: is it better to leave the country and have more freedom, even if that means being cut off from Chinese life, and being less able to have an impact?
The story of Zola getting to Taiwan is pretty great. He was on a TV show in Taipei about activism and was standing by the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial doing an interview with a former Tiananmen Square protester, and the interviewer asked Zola why he didn’t seem worried about his safety and future. His response was something to the effect of: “I know what I’m doing is right, and I know that it’s good for people and for myself. Because it’s the right thing to do I don’t worry about doing it.”
A young woman had seen that broadcast and sent him a package saying, "Your interview really touched me and I want to support you. I don’t have money to send so I’d like to give you these books." They started corresponding and he invited her to meet up [in mainland China]. When she visited, Zola admitted he hadn’t read the books, but they really hit it off and on their third meeting he asked her to marry him.
So they got married and he moved to Taipei with her, which was bittersweet because on the one hand it’s like, who wouldn’t want to live in this exciting new place, especially where the internet is not blocked, and to have this whole new life with this person you’ve fallen in love with? But he also was cut off from that activity and the urgency that he surrounded himself with when he was in mainland China. And also the biggest sadness for him was being away from his family and his dad in particular, whom he is very close with. He’s in the process of getting residency in Taiwan and has really been trying to behave himself to ensure that he can travel back and forth and see his family when he wants.
We’ve been corresponding and he tells me, “I’m like a stay-at-home husband, I cook for my wife, I look for a job…” but he’s certainly doing more than that. He and some partners are also working on a secret project, something he says is going to be big. And he also does quite a bit of technical and social media consultation for NGOs and other organizations. He stays busy.
It’s hard to make a film or write a book or even write an article about China because everything is always changing so fast there. Recently, China’s “Great Firewall” got an upgrade and VPNs, those firewall-leaping tools, are getting targeted more. What else do you wish could have gone into your film?
It’s true, it’s an ongoing, really fascinating story and it's a shame we couldn’t continue to document it because the most interesting stuff is continually happening. A term I’m not sure how I feel about that gets so overused, but seems to capture what is intangible in a way, is the idea that it’s a cat and mouse game. The government steps it up and creates new restrictions like the latest thing is real name registration requirements for social media users and VPN blockage, and then bloggers eventually step it up and they find workarounds for that.
At a certain point I think the film had a natural ending with the Arab Spring protests happening across the Middle East. Perhaps fearful that a “Chinese Jasmine Revolution” might develop, authorities were being extra cautious and had pressured Tiger to leave Beijing a second time. So at that moment, there was this layer of the internet and digital activism taking on a global context which seemed like a fitting ending.
I think a lot of people are not necessarily optimistic that the idea of a digital revolution is going to change China. I think most of these people in the blogosphere seem to believe it’s not about American or Western-style democracy by any stretch. But it’s about reform happening that’s appropriate to China and Chinese people, and within reach of the government.
Chinese petitioners outside a court in southwest China's Chongqing municipality in May 2010.
There’s another Chinese blogger, Michael Anti, who says that this whole social media thing, Weibo in particular [the Chinese equivalent to Twitter], is actually almost like a convenient tool for the government, that in actuality the government is in control of all the data that flows within traditional and new-media forms. And that when you see something like that high-speed train crash [in Wenzhou in July 2011], this outpouring of social media protest or any of the other thousands of protests that are aimed at local governments, at corruption, those are things that in his estimation the central government is really in control of, and actually allowing.
And it’s not happening because they can’t tamp it down. It’s because there’s an understanding that these are things that need to be–this is like a pressure valve that needs to be released at times. Because there’s no denying that there is a very kind of firm and controlled stance on any kind of criticism that’s directed at the central government–that doesn’t fly at all, you can’t get away with that.
But when there’s a guy doing something bad enough on a local government level it’s like, there have been countless cases where netizens, bloggers, and social media users have created an overwhelming outpouring of public disapproval and then that corrupt fatcat winds up losing his job. So it’s interesting to see that and ask the question, is there ever going to be a moment when that kind of openness can ever be directed at discussing the Chinese Communist Party’s policies, Central Party officials? Probably not.
Yeeeeah…I’m a pessimist I think.
But it is amazing, at the same time, when you consider Michael’s ideas about how the government is “allowing” this kind of vigorous debate. This idea of online political debate is a new layer of social consciousness and really links up with and is consistent with these basic ideas that Zola and Tiger believe in, that one of the worst forms of censorship is self-censorship. They believe people need to relearn how to be politically engaged, and relearn how to be expressive about their beliefs, and know that you can speak out more than you think you can in this day and age. And you can actually effect positive change within your local community and beyond.
What is Tiger Temple up to now, and how is this recent internet crackdown affecting him.
He’s still based in Xi’an and he’s been doing his travel and reporting thing and none of that has changed, so that’s really heartening, that he’s continuing to ride his bike and report on stories. He says that when he gets too old to ride a bike maybe he’ll get a motorcycle and keep on doing what he does. I think he also recently did a book reading event at a local university, so he’s been encouraging youth to read more classic literature and do book discussions.
That was the last update I got about him. I think that because of his personality, and Zola too, but less so with Zola living in Taipei, that he’ll always be out there and continue to be able to do what he does. He knows that he’s not on a suicide mission, but yet he says that he’ll do this until the day he dies, really. So he’ll always complain about things but I think do it in a way that keeps him out of harm’s way. So there’s definitely an element of self-preservation in all of his efforts.
From Tiger Temple's famous 2004 blog post about a murder he witnessed on a Beijing street
So Tiger Temple and Zola are self-censoring when they have to.
Yeah. And I think for them it’s like, there’s no story that’s too small. There’s the People's Political Consultative Congress, an annual political meeting, and that’s one of the most sensitive times in Beijing. In the past he’s been put under a lot of pressure; in the film that’s the period during which Tiger is pushed out and asked to leave the city, and escorted back to stay with his mother for ten days and put under informal house arrest. I think during those kinds of periods perhaps they’ll lay low or report on smaller stories, less provocative issues, but I think for both of them there’s no story that’s too small. Anything to just maintain this effort to just be vocal and talk about important issues regardless of the scale. It is something that they will always do.
Tiger actually didn’t even have a VPN for a long time. I think Zola was the one who helped him get a VPN account. At a certain point I don’t think he even knew what it was.
I guess that’s an answer then to how the VPN crackdowns are affecting bloggers–there’s just so much important stuff out there to cover that you can live without a VPN, and not be touching the really big central government things that are going to get you in serious trouble, and there’s still a lot you can do.
Yeah, absolutely. There’s always this mystery question people ask Tiger: how is your blog not shut down, and why are you not officially censored? And that’s still a mystery to some degree. I mean, certain entries have been shut down, or blocked, but I think he really diversifies his messaging and really tries to ride a fine line between how he expresses his particular form of dissent. And those guys are not organizing. That’s the big thing. They’re not saying, "let’s go meet up and have a protest." If they were to do that, there would be no Zola or Tiger Temple or film about them, it would just be a news story: two bloggers who tried to organize a protest were "disappeared."
So they’ve seen the film…
Yeah. Zola was like, "I’m really looking forward to re-editing it to show some of the cool stuff I can do, and putting some advertisements on it and stuff…" [laughs]. I was like, great, that’s, really...that’s exactly what I want to do!
The experience of being followed by a documentary crew has impacted Tiger's work, I think. He’s like, “I’ve been thinking a lot about our experience and really interested in the idea of making my own documentary films,” so he got a monstrous HD camera and has been going around shooting more longform. He’s really thinking of his work now more in terms of documentary filmmaking I think.
It sounds like you really impacted the both of them.
Well not as much as they’ve impacted me, that’s for sure. The only thing that impressed them is the fact that I kept coming back to shoot more and to their sort of shock and dismay at times to have accumulated so much footage, because they were like, why don’t you just release this stuff? It’s going to be so dated by the time you finish this film. What we do is we shoot and release…but I think they get it. I hope they get it.
How did they inspire you?
Zola has this really great story that he tells sometimes that begins with a question a person at one of his training sessions asked him: "What gives you the drive and motivation to do what you do when it’s very likely that your efforts will never lead to any kind of real change, that you may never even get to see the problems that you’re trying to fix resolved?" And his response is touching because he tells the story of a guy on a beach who comes across this whole school of fish that gets washed up from a storm or something, and he’s lifting one fish at a time and is throwing them back into the ocean, and then this other guy walks up and is like, "Why are you doing that, why bother? You’ll never get this many fish back into the ocean, they’ll all die before you get to the last one."
And he turns to the guy, picks up a fish and says, "Maybe that’s true but at least this fish is pretty psyched about what I’m doing. And this fish cares, and this one cares." And that’s really the point. It’s not about getting the whole job done. And I always think, wow, that’s pretty moving, and it makes any effort you have to be engaged and be more socially conscious and more socially minded more within reach.
I think it’s easy to feel really bleak, to go down to an Occupy event and be like, "Is this scrappy group of gutter-punks and whoever else gonna enact change?" I don’t know. But then it gives you a little hope that every little effort really does matter. You’ve got to start somewhere.
Oh I thought at first you were saying Zola himself was on a beach, saving these fish.
Oh god no…he would probably eat them. He’d be like, "What a fortune!"
What have been some of the more interesting reactions to the film?
People love their story. People love that Tiger used to talk through the voice of his cat, people love that Zola is a total whack-a-doodle and that they're both doing really kind of inspiring work. On that level, I’m really happy that it’s been effective in introducing people to their story and maybe not dispelling, but complicating people’s notions of China. I like knowing that the film helps make a more nuanced portrait of this place that people tend to think of in more Draconian terms because of the news media.
And what kind of reaction has Beijing had? Will this film ever get a public screening in China?
Of course I had a lot of concerns when I started this film. Every moment up until the end I thought: if either of the guys isn’t down with it, or if it seems like it would put anyone at too much risk, then I won’t release the film, despite any grant or organization that might get upset with me or possibly even sue me – we’d just shelve it. When I asked people in China how a film like this would play out, one response was, “Don’t do what every Western journalist does, which is demonize China.” Also, don’t win an Oscar, because that’s when they’ll start paying attention.
I agree. You’d have to get pretty far above the radar for something to happen.
Yeah that was another thing our co-producer said: the good and bad thing is most people don’t care about documentary film in China, and the government knows that, so they’re not going to be too concerned about your film. If there were something to worry about I wouldn’t be here.
Interestingly, prior to the Sheffield Doc Fest last June, a visiting Chinese delegation of government-sponsored funders tried to protest the showing of the Ai Weiwei doc, and later included our film in their demands. When I asked Tiger and Zola if they were concerned, they both said they hoped I wouldn’t pull the film. Zola said, “If the organizers of Sheffield decide to pull the film tell them I will be organizing a protest against them!”
'High Tech Low Life' opens tomorrow, January 9 at the IFC for a week-long run. Steve Maing will be speaking on opening night at the 6:30 & 8:30 screenings.