Film: High risk reporting along China's Great Firewall in High Tech, Low Life

Eagerly-awaited documentary High Tech, Low Life released this week online. The film chronicles life on the edge for two bloggers under China's increasing surveillance and propaganda directives.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

New documentary High Tech, Low Life (hightechlowlifefilm.com) chronicles life on the edge for two bloggers under China's everyday surveillance and propaganda directives.

This powerful film reveals a slice of China's State-controlled life never before seen by Western audiences, and in a twist of timing, High Tech was released this week on iTunes in the thick of America's domestic surveillance meltdown.

high tech low life cover

ZDNet caught up with director Stephen Maing after the film's release this week, and discovered that the timing of current events — NSA domestic spying revelations — and High Tech, Low Life's release weighs heavily on Maing.

He told ZDNet,

The revelation regarding how the NSA Prism program collects private information from companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others is disturbingly similar to how the Chinese government pressures its own domestic Internet companies to gain access to private user information and content.

Americans should understand that the kind of surveillance and infringement of privacy seen in China is not much different than what has been practiced by our own government.

Perhaps these statements also demonstrate that while filming High Tech, Low Life, Maing experienced everyday life in China, into whose fabric is woven continuous Internet and mobile phone communications surveillance by security services.

Commenting to ZDNet, Maing wasted no time calling on the present-day complicity of American companies in China's own private 1984 — especially Cisco.

He explained, "Also worth discussing is the behavior of American companies like Cisco that not only sell technology used for censorship to the Chinese government, but have also developed technology used domestically that allows for private information to be diverted to NSA data collection centers."

(During 2011, two lawsuits were filed in U.S. courts against the American technology company Cisco Systems, asserting there was evidence the firm had customized its surveillance equipment to assist Chinese security agencies in apprehending Falun Gong practitioners and democracy activists; Cisco denied the allegations and the cases were pending as of May 2012.)

His groundbreaking new documentary follows Internet-famous Chinese bloggers Zola and Tiger Temple during China's Internet adoption explosion, and also while the 2011 Arab Spring occurs, triggering a strong response from the Chinese government to Internet speech.

Maing captures what Western audiences have never seen: the direct application of domestic surveillance with the intent to silence individuals, even capturing — covertly — an unexpected, middle-of-the-night police raid for the arrest of Tiger Temple.

In High Tech we first meet Zola — a young, fame-seeking media hound; a distilled version of American counterparts who are a dime a dozen. He wears t-shirts that bear an illustrated version of his face, and makes no bones about the fact that he's in the game to get famous, get rich and meet pretty girls.

For a vegetable cart seller it's a lofty ambition, and a superficial one at that, but in the junctures where the film reveals the very careful lines Zola slyly treads to tell the truth about stories the officials have gone great lengths to cover up, we see that Zola is more than meets the eye.

In one High Tech segment, Zola kits up at night to travel by motorcycle very far to report from a funeral that he's been told is a murder coverup. Zola walks the viewer through his emergency contact procedures — and his anti-surveillance gear.

When Zola arrives at the funeral, it appears that reporters have been prevented from attending and locals are visibly wary that Zola might be a journalist. He wins their trust by hamming up his goofy I-want-to-be-on-video persona, and the locals open up.

Relaxed by his goofiness, they tell him what happened to the teenager in the coffin. The pretty young girl was raped and murdered by a local official's relative, her body was dumped in the river.

Later, when Zola publishes the story, a commenter tells Zola how disgusted they are to see him taking smiling self-portraits in front of the coffin. They also ask him not to stop reporting.

Official news stories about the event told a different story than the girl's family and neighbors.

In High Tech's footage from the official press conference authorities tell reporters a bizarre story: that the girl went to a bridge with a friend, the friend did three push-ups, and after the third push-up the girl said she couldn't take it anymore and jumped into the river — a suicide.

Zola visits the bridge.

Knowing how careful he must be to not end up in a forced labor "re-education" camp for disseminating information the government doesn't like, he takes an interesting approach to dismantle the nonsensical grounding detail in the officials' story.

Zola sets up the tripod and does push-ups on the bridge.

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There are more stories like this in High Tech, Low Life — and the crowd-funded (Kickstarter) film is a must-see.

If you're expecting a high-action documentary with a neat ending, you won't find it in High Tech, Low Life.

Instead, Director Stephen Maing presents us with a timely set of choices. He told ZDNet,

Part of my hope in making this film was that people might not only learn from the vigilance of our characters, but also consider how, in our digital age, issues like censorship, surveillance and the abuse of power by governments can happen anywhere in any country, and often in very invisible ways.

All governments and powerful corporations fear complete transparency.

The work of citizen journalists, whistle-blowers and activists who draw attention to social and political injustice, often at great personal cost, is nothing short of admirable.

We see directly and exactly what Maing means in High Tech, Low Life when Maing captures a nighttime police invasion into Tiger Temple's apartment.

In his retirement years, Temple travels by bicycle and blogs news items similar to Zola's, but with a very different aim: to tell the truth in an atmosphere of wilful obfuscation, because there are some things in history that must never, ever be repeated.

tiger temple high tech low life


The dark police scene in Temple's apartment is chilling; cannily, a friend of director Maing made the most of being in the wrong place at the right time and hit 'record' on his camera during the entire raid.

We watch the nighttime events inside the apartment unfold from the height of Temple's beloved cat, with views of cat, police, Temple, and others virulently engaging with police arguing for Temple, against his midnight house arrest.

It is around this event that we learn more details about the domestic surveillance conducted on Temple, and his enduring, wry amusement that the state might think Tiger was unaware he was constantly followed and monitored.

The two bloggers in High Tech, Low Life couldn't be any different, though they have much in common.

Both the elder Tiger Temple and young Zola are unable to accept China's state-run news, where online news portals are prohibited from producing their own content and are only authorized to repost information from state-run traditional media.

Both are moved to act on the unreported realities of corruption, crime, injustice and tragedy surrounding everyday life in China — especially since the tools to right these wrongs via citizen journalism and Internet reporting are just within their grasp.

Zola and Tiger post their stories at great risk and against a tightly controlled Internet experience in which the Chinese government does more than enact a "Great Firewall."

The bloggers compete with directed propaganda, often accompanied by specific instructions to marginalize or amplify certain content. Hired web commentators post pro-government comments, are directed to muddy discussions and mislead conversations, as well as report users who have posted state-offending statements (2008 estimates put the number of these commentators at over 250,000).

Training workshops for these government-controlled internet commentators increased throughout the country in 2011, including police and prison personnel — while High Tech was actively documenting Tiger and Zola.

While Zola and Tiger were becoming popular, "real name" registration emerged to become a powerful government tool for the elimination of anonymous speech. In late 2011, "real name" registration was expanded to domestic microblogging services, amidst broader legal restrictions imposed on social media tools.

During documentary filming, the Arab Spring erupts — early 2011. In February 2011, likely around the time High Tech, Low Life is present to document Tiger Temple's nighttime police visit, dozens of lawyers, activists, and bloggers who had been active both on domestic and international social media were essentially being abducted by police one by one.

As High Tech documents, the Chinese government publicly responded to the Arab Spring in May 2011 by creating the State Internet Information Office, employing what is estimated to be around 44,000 staff in active, full-time surveillance and policing of the Internet and citizen Internet activities.

In a televised statement to Chinese citizens in regard to the Arab Spring (shown in High Tech, Low Life), State Internet Information Office warns:

"... anyone seeking parallels with events in the Middle East or North Africa will be sorely disappointed."

Stephen Maing’s Hi Tech, Low Life is now available on Apple's iTunes store. High Tech has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, July 22, 2013, at 10pm (check local listings) on the PBS series POV (Point of View). The film will stream on POV’s website, pbs.org/pov, from July 23–Aug. 21, 2013.

Correction June 20: Edited to reflect that the camera operator during the nighttime raid on Tiger Temple's apartment was a friend of director Stephen Maing, and not the director himself.

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