Thursday, April 26, 2012

"High Tech, Low Life" documents the difficulties for political bloggers in China, still a long way off from real capitalism


On Wednesday, April 25, I attended a nearly sold-out performance of “High Tech, Low Life”, by Stephen Maing, at the Tribeca Film Festival at a vertical Loews complex in the East Village in NYC (on 3rd, Avenue, across 10th street from a café-bar called “The Pourhouse” – lunch but no coffee!).  At this venue, the Tribeca section was segregated from the general population with a separate entrance.

The 87-minute documentary traces the activities of two bloggers who, while operating technically within the law in China, face harassment and disruption from the Chinese government and sometimes from family.  Both bloggers want to document careless behavior by the state and companies in this new “People’s Republic of Capitalism”.  The Chinese government fears both of them as it prepares for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The younger man, Zola, apparently around 20 or so in 2008, has grown up in rural China and decides to go on a motorcycle tour on his own and blog.  His family objects, his grandmother at one point saying he doesn’t consider the effect of his attention-getting behavior on his own family (my mother has said that to me).  He follows his own heart though, and eventually attracts attention from authorities.  When he tries to go to Germany for a blogger’s conference, he is kept from leaving the country, even though he hasn’t broken the law.  But later China relents a little, and he does go to Romania for another conference, and hosts one in southern China.

The other "featured" blogger is “Tiger Temple”, a retired 60-year-old on a bicycle tour. He names his blog after his personable and “human” tabby cat, who becomes a bit of a character in the film (just as in “Cirkus Columbia”).   The government forces him to leave Beijing for the countryside during the Olympics, but does not harm his site or infrastructure.

The film also focuses on a dispute in Chongxing about a homeowner who resisted eminent domain when corporate interests tried to build apartment complexes around him. 

Zola has a lot of charisma, and is quite able to get other people to cooperate with him and help him.  He seems quite able to survive with very little as he travels, staying in warehouses.  At one point, he says “I am a blogger, not a journalist”; but we all know that there is a cultural battle over the notion that “bloggers are journalists” as Electronic Frontier Foundation writes.

Toward the end of the film, Zola returns home, not exactly “the prodigal son”, and has another fight with his family, having attracted particular attention with a comical shot of him doing jumping jacks near the Great Wall. His grandmother says they will be gone soon.  His older brother has a wife and house.  Zola asks, “What does that have to do with me?”   When is he going to find a wife and continue his leg of the family lineage?

I could not find a full entry for this film in imdb yet.   Tribeca's formal site is here.  Visually, it is quite striking, giving the impression that visiting China would be like going to another planet.

Zola, and Stephen Maing were present for the Q&A.  Zola says he now lives in Taiwan and has recently just married.  His remarks gave a strong push for libertarianism, along the lines of what you would see at the Cato Institute in the US.

I asked if a controversial blogger in the US or the West (me!) would face risk if he or she traveled in China.  Could I be arrested there if my blogs were publicly available.  (Right now, Facebook is still banned in China, and I think Blogger is, too; but it’s pretty easy for programmers to work around the “Great Firewall of China”).  Zola said there would not be a problem unless I represented or was part of a “political organization”.


I'm going to check soon to see which films from the Festival are also available for paid (usually $4) rental on YouTube.  A lot more of them look interesting, particularly "Knuckleball", "The Girl", "The Giant Mechanical Man", "The Fourth Dimension", "Journey to Planet X".

I should also mention that Tribeca is doing a screening of the 1983 hit "War Games" (MGM, dir. John Badham), with Matthew Broderick, a film prescient about today's issues with hacking and cybersecurity.  I saw the film in Dallas at Northpark when it originally appeared. 

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