‘My Responsibility to History’: An Interview with Zhang Shihe

Ian Johnson:

“Tiger Temple” (Laohu Miao) is the nom de guerre of Zhang Shihe, one of China’s best-known citizen journalists and makers of short video documentaries, many of them profiling ordinary people he met during extraordinarily long bike rides through China, or human rights activists who have been silenced but whose ideas on freedom and open society he has recorded for future generations.

Now sixty-five years old, Zhang belongs to a generation of people like leader Xi Jinping who came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Also like Xi, Zhang was a child of the country’s Communist elite. His father had been a Public Security Bureau official in China’s Northwest, which was also the base of Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun. Zhang’s father was a rung lower on the ladder, but still ended his career with the rank of vice-minister.

And like the Xi family, the Zhangs suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Xi was sent off to a remote village to labor, while Zhang Shihe was a child laborer who helped build a treacherous mountain railway line. But the two reacted differently to their fates. When the turmoil ended in the late 1970s, Xi grasped every opportunity to make up for lost time and launch his political career. Zhang, however, used the freedoms of the new era to explore how China had gone off the rails.

He did this by interviewing China’s downtrodden, becoming a pioneering “citizen journalist,” a breed of self-taught activists who used the newly emerging digital technologies to record interviews and post them online, thus bypassing—for about a decade starting in the early 2000s—traditional forms of censorship.