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.”
Before he became a vegetable seller in his hometown, Zola worked as network administrator for a small company in the southern city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong. He already had his personal website in 2004 – the stone age for internet in much of China.
State censors block access to his web site from within China since 2007, unamused by its contents. ,,The government tries to control all media”, says Zola. ,,If you report any social issue, the authorities ask the internet provider to remove your article. If you want to comment on a blog, you have to register with your real name. People know this, but not many try to fight it.”
Zola moved to New Taipei after marrying a Taiwanese. They met after she saw him on television in a report about his blog. Although he has once been stopped from leaving mainland China, he is currently allowed to leave and enter the country as he chooses.
,,I am not a dissident who was forced to leave because of my activites as a blogger. My wife just doesn’t like the environment in the mainland, that is why I moved to Taiwan in 2012.”
He is only sometimes an activist, he says. ,,I am not a full time, professional activist. It is only when an issue is very interesting that I feel I can do something by reporting about it. That is when I become an activist.”
As with doing pushups in Weng’an, Zola applies a tongue in cheek tone to his activism. That should not be mistaken as light heartedness. Zola feels a great deal of anger when covering injustice, but knows what he wants and how get there.
,,I am definitely angry when I report a story, but I try to tell it in a different way. Every social issue is really very dark, very serious. If I report on these things with too serious a tone, my friends and readers might get unhappy and not want to read it anymore. My goal is to get them to pay more attention to social issues, so I use a fun way to talk about it. I think in that way, people will easier accept a story and help to distribute it more widely.”
His tone of reporting earned him the nickname ‘the playful warrior’ from his fellow activist blogger Zhang Shihe, aka Tiger Temple. Zhang, also featured in the documentary, applies a much more serious tone to his reports. He gets more involved with the people he blogs about, actively helping them to resolve issues.
,,Zhang is very serious in his activism”, says Zola. ,,His followers may get an angry feeling because of what he shows in his work. I agree people should be angry about the issues we cover, they should get the feeling they want to do something, but the anger should not dominate their feelings.”
In his rural hometown, his parents used to worry about Zola. The family was in a tough spot when Zola told them he was leaving to start reporting, his mother says in the film, aware of the risks. Her concerns about the long lack of a wife for her son, were possibly even larger.
All that has disappeared with his marriage. Zola: ,,My wife is very kind to my parents. They communicate well, so they don’t worry about me so much anymore.”
Zola currently teaches people on how to bypass the censorship and how to work as a citizen journalist / activist blogger. ,,A lot of people are reporting issues nowadays, recording things with their smartphones. Things will surely change because of this. China will become a more open society eventually.”
Zhou Shuguang (1981), aka Zola, is a self-taught internet technologist and former network administrator who received his certification as a network engineer in 2004.
Since that year, he maintains a blog at www.zuola.com, where he shares information on social issues in China like forced demolitions, environmental pollution protests and government cover-ups.
His blog has earned him national and international fame. He is actively fighting censorship of the internet and the media in China, organizing seminars on new media technology throughout the country and training internet users in ways to bypass the Chinese censorship.
He is married and lives in New Taipei, Taiwan.