Can citizen journalism work in China? Villagers give their verdict

  • Artists recruited the villagers in hope of empowering them, documented local issues they felt were under-reported by the Chinese media
  • A film made from their mobile phone footage was screened in Shenzhen, but achieving lasting change proved more complex
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2018, 9:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2018, 12:22pm

On a chilly autumn day, a bus pulled over at Baishizhou, an urban village in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen that is due for demolition, and more than 80 people got off. They quickly divided into seven groups, sneaked into the village through different entrances and began filming using their phones.

Guo Qiwei was one of them: a group of villagers from Xisan, about 100km (60 miles) away in southwest Guangzhou, recruited last November by a dozen-strong artist collective to become “citizen journalists”.

The artists hoped Guo and the rest would film clips of Baishizhou’s residents to be edited together into a movie for their film studio, founded to document social issues.

They hoped the villagers could use filming as a tool to defend their rights when they encountered issues such as the forced demolition of their homes without fair compensation.

But Guo was just curious to learn whether her own village was really such a terrible place to live. The 30-year-old had heard Xisan mentioned on the news only once: in 2008, on a local radio show called Panyu News. It was not remotely flattering.

“The host said Xisan village had the most backwards economy and worst transport in the region,” Guo recalled this September, when the South China Morning Post visited to assess the project’s impact.

On arrival in Baishizhou, her impression was that it had less space between houses than Xisan, messy wires and lacked farmland.

She filmed a shopkeeper who told her he looked forward to the demolition of the urban village, because it would bring better living conditions.

It reminded her of home, and she wondered: “Would Xisan village become like this one day?”

VILLAGER JOURNALISTS

Artist Zheng Hongbin was behind the villagers’ trip to Baishizhou. He had always believed artists needed to cooperate with the media, and even become the media when necessary. Many local issues, he said, were under-reported by the Chinese media.

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Zheng started thinking about this in 2016, after co-initiating a project called “Residents”, which united 32 artists across the Pearl River Delta, most drawn from urban villages, to observe and reflect society.

He moved to Xisan that year. It covers only 1.5 sq km (0.6 square miles), has a few thousand residents, most of them migrant workers, and resembles hundreds of other urban villages in the delta area: a gutter runs through the village, houses squish together and coiled wires hang like cobwebs in the air.

An motorway built in 2010 tore the village in half. On one side, villagers sold home-grown vegetables in baskets by dusty roads. On the other stood the Peninsula, a new castle-like residential development standing over 20 storeys tall, resembling a well-dressed giant surrounded by dwarfs.

Together, these artists and villagers compiled film and other records covering topics including the demolition of churches in Shenzhen, a father’s journey to find how his son died, and suicides at a residential compound.

When the project ended, the artists felt there was still plenty to be done, so Zheng founded the film studio in Xisan. The artists created a WeChat account and started uploading short clips filmed with phones.

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Artist Xie Junbo showcased a restaurant owner in the village and his 20 years of hardship. Yu Xudong filmed a barber there who felt deserted by the times. Li Yanming filmed a street fight. Cai Suo filmed the story of how villagers had to use a faraway river – because the local one had become a gutter – to sink their dragon boat, as is traditional between festivals for safekeeping.

Last October, the studio was invited by Quanzi Art Centre in Shenzhen to do an exhibit. The artists decided to ask the villagers to participate with them. The idea of making a film with “village journalists” was born.

CENSORED ENDEAVOURS

The villagers’ priorities lay with making money and raising a family, so Zheng had to convince them.

“If they could realise recording is a tool used in protecting their rights, that would be great,” he said.

Zheng started recruiting. Eventually, with the promise of meals and a thorough explanation, he had a busload, and they set off, singing the entire way.

The artists knew they needed to avoid the gaze of the authorities. They had been no strangers to censorship. In March 2017, when the “Residents” project exhibited at the Guoqiao mall in Shenzhen, they had been told some words were too “sensitive” and needed to be taken out, such as “residential rights”, “church relocation”, “ferocious” and “inside and outside the wall”.

Even the abridged version of the exhibit did not last long. After about 20 days, it was shut down by the authorities.

This time, the artists would divide the villagers into groups. Even then, they attracted attention. While Guo was filming an old lady in front of her house, asking about her living situation, a village security guard appeared, asking questions. Guo explained but the guard told her to stop.

She complied but tried to reason, only for the guard to shout into a walkie-talkie and summon a squad of 10, running from the alleyways. One of them, who appeared to be their leader, snapped: “Just go, quickly, don’t linger here.”

‘EVERYONE GETS HOUSES’

Artist Xie Junbo led another of the teams. They came across a black market housing agent, who refused to reveal much. Then they went to a clothes shop whose lease was not yet up but which had been ordered for demolition. When the village journalists arrived, the shop had had its water and electricity cut off, yet its owner was struggling on.

Xie was pleased with their findings. “This village was the same despite people facing demolition and compensation issues,” he said. “When our villagers go back home, they might think about what they themselves will face.”

The final stop for his group was at the border of the village. The houses there were empty, the residents having moved out before demolitions. The Chinese character “chai” (demolition) was written all over the walls and outside the village, in the distance, vast developments of new, upmarket single houses were visible.

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Seeing this, an artist asked a 12-year-old boy in the group: “Would you rather everybody have houses to live in, or some with a nice house and some with no house?”

The boy thought about it, then said firmly: “Everyone gets houses.”

DIFFERING PERSPECTIVES

The film of these excursions – Villager Journalists – was screened in Shenzhen during the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture last December. One of the artists made roasted duck and rice. The group invited some villagers from Baishizhou to watch.

“The most direct response was someone pointing at the screen and saying, ‘Hey, that’s you!’” artist Yu Xudong said. “Then people broke into laughter.”

After the film’s completion, the artists noticed changes in Xisan. The villagers increasingly treated them like full-time journalists, sending short clips of their experiences to a WeChat group, hoping the artists could solve issues for them.

More often, they would arrive on the artists’ doorsteps seeking help. During the Post’s visit, Xie’s former landlady came to his home, where all the artists were gathered. She had come on behalf of a few others, whose homes were to be demolished or rebuilt because the government was cleaning up the polluted river and areas around it.

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Zheng lit a cigarette and furrowed his brow, listening closely, nodding from time to time. He advised the woman to seek information disclosure from the government.

He told the Post he did not mind the villagers asking him for help. “It feels like our previous work was not in vain,” Zheng said. “But the best scenario would be that we build this ‘media’ together with the villagers.”

Yu showed a little frustration. “It’s difficult to get the villagers to voluntarily participate and film; they always need a push, an invitation,” he said.

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The villagers did not see their trip to Baishizhou quite as the artists had anticipated, either. “They asked me to go, so I went,” the landlady said. She refrained from commenting further. Xie said her husband had forbidden her from talking about the matter publicly, wary of trouble it may bring.

Guo did not think the villagers’ trip would encourage them to remain citizen journalists or empower them to solve their own issues. She never did film any videos back in Xisan.

“The artists meant well and they were the first to mobilise the villagers to participate,” she said. “But [villagers] are busy with their own lives. I think it will take a long time to change things.”