Activist blogger Zhou Shuguang (32) uses a light tone to draw attention to heavy issues plaguing Chinese society. Finding his role as a lone reporter on social topics to be risky, he now teaches others to become citizen reporters as well.
With a triumphant if not plain daring smile, Zhou Shuguang looks into the camera and boasts: ‘I did six pushups and no one jumped in the river!’
The year is 2008 and activist blogger Zhou, better known under his screen name Zola, is in Weng’an, a small town in southern China. Li Shufen, a 16 year-old local girl had just drowned in the river. According to angry villagers, she was raped by a relative of a local official and then thrown into the river.
The town officials claimed Li jumped into the river herself, while the guy she was with was doing pushups. A rather far-fetched excuse to absolve the town leaders from any connection to Li’s death.
Online anger over the lack of a proper investigation reaches then 26-year old vegetable seller Zola in his rural hometown in Hunan province, over 750 kilometers east of Weng’an. He jumps on his motorcycle, donning yellow sunglasses, and heads over to find out what happened. His goal: to publish the true story of the death of Li Shufen on his blog.
,,Everything changed after that, but it went as I expected”, says Zola from his current home in New Taipei, Taiwan. His website jumped from two hundred visitors to two hundred thousand in a few days.
,,I think many people in China feel as I do, but not many people speak like me. There are no platforms. My goal is to blog about these social issues, to be an independent journalist.”
At the start of the film ‘High Tech, Low Life’ Zola also states another one of his goals: to become famous. Armed only with his Samsung pocket camera, a laptop and a hand written card with his personal details up to his blood type, he has chosen a risky path to fame, by deciding to report on real issues instead of what China’s state television reports as news. That news is ‘crap’, Zola states confidently.
Chinese security authorities hardly back away from measures to silence citizens who publish stories and opinions that contradict what the Party likes to hear. Over the past few years, there has been an increase in house arrests and other sanctions, aimed to intimidate and silence this group.
,,I never think much about the risks”, says Zola. ,,I just do it. I am a special sample. There are not many people like me, who have both the technical skills to blog and the sense for a good story. Everyone can use the internet, but not every vegetable seller can become a blogger.”