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Going Inside the "Great Firewall" of China
July 22, 2013  | By Eric Gould

It's well-known that the Chinese government controls how and what news gets reported there. Facebook and other social networking sites are blocked. It's a bit startling then, when a young blogger, "Zola," changes the DNS settings on his computer's internet connection, and his blog page – and then Facebook – quickly pop up on his screen. As vigorous as the efforts have been to block independent news and opinion in the vast, communist-controlled country, there are just as many leaks in the electronic dam – The "Great Firewall" – that has been set up to block Chinese internet users from the outside world.

Viewers get a couple of first-person experiences from Zhou Shuguang, a.k.a. "Zola" (top, on location of a story, with his wireless pad), and Zhang Shihe, a.k.a. "Tiger Temple," an older, veteran Beijing blogger. Each writer still lives within the confines of that censorship as the POV documentary High Tech, Low Life premieres Monday night on PBS (10 p.m. ET; check local listings.)

Both bloggers have become well-known "citizen journalists" to online readers in China, as they follow stories ranging from mass industrial pollution in the countryside to murder cover-ups by government authorities.

The Chinese public seem to accept that the government news they get isn't necessarily the whole story, or, in some cases, even the truth. This documentary by Stephen Maing (Lioness, Little Hearts) shows that despite the blogger's achievements, their style of writing and methods of reporting are still compromised to appear benign and to stay within the often murky rules of Chinese media authorities. Zola (shown, left, in a self-pic atop The Great Wall) comments, ""The truth is, I don't know what journalism is...  I just record what I witness." Later, he adds, "Nobody knows what principles govern the Firewall's censorship... The censors might stop some of us, but they can't stop all of us."

Some of the footage, shot during the 2008 Olympics, is against the modern backdrop of Beijing, and inside "Tiger Temple's" modest but very comfortable-looking flat, where his cat, Mongolia, lounges on the arm of the couch. With the writer and others wired online and looking very much to be living the cosmopolitan life, you wonder why a society that has experienced such economic success has not found a way to integrate free opinion. It seems the last, logical step.

Tiger Temple points out that it is a continuing process. "We're educating the government. We're both learning from each other. Last year we could talk about X, not Y. This year we can talk about Y. Next year we can talk about Z. Democracy is education."

But that shouldn't give viewer's the idea that free speech is coming to China easily, or soon. Both writers are followed and questioned by government authorities and their surrogates, and reporting news independently still carries a considerable amount of risk. Online writers have been jailed. A vast network of government and private internet monitors operate across the country.

In many ways, High Tech, Low Life is a tale of what happens when old-guard, centralized government collides with the individualism of 21st-century technology. It is also a tale, however, of one country's reaction to the 2012 Twitter-fed revolutions in Libya and Egypt.

The documentary notes that after those revolts, the government set up a new agency called The State Internet Information Body to prevent disruptions to social "stability."  A spokeswoman says on one broadcast, "Peace and stability are the common aspiration of the Chinese people. Therefore, this kind of agitation is an act of vanity. So anybody seeking parallels with events in the Middle East or North Africa will be sorely disappointed."

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