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August 22, 2008

NARRATOR: It's no secret that the Communist government of China has long gone to great lengths to control the information to which its people have access… …Through state-run newspapers and television, party leadership offers sanitized versions of the days news. But now, huge numbers of Chinese are turning to the web for their information - at last count almost 253 million users, according to government estimates, more than any other nation in the world, including the United States.

That's despite an increasingly sophisticated internet censoring system, known as the Great Firewall of China. Intrepid bloggers have managed to break through the wall and speak their mind. Among the estimated 107 million bloggers, one in particular has stood out as a voice for the voiceless…

Zhang Shihe, known on the internet as Tiger Temple…publishes a blog called "24 Hours Online." The 55-year-old Beijing resident speaks out about the plight of the displaced, the abuse of migrant workers, and the growing environmental problems plaguing the country.

ZHANG SHIHE: I'm a recorder, a documenter of life. The people have their own issues, I'm just recording what I see around me. I've never called myself a citizen reporter, I'm just writing to record what going on in our society.

NARRATOR: Tiger Temple is largely driven by his personal history…during the Cultural Revolution he was forced to endure "reeducation" - nearly three years of hard labor digging railroads, followed by five years in a steel factory. Then after opening a few bookstores, he was forced to shut them down after the1989 Tiananmen crackdown left him with only Communist propaganda to sell…

ZHANG SHIHE: There was no railroad along the three gorges, deep in the mountains. All the factories were moved in, railroad troops all mobilized there, digging tunnels. We were using rakes with wooden handles, a bamboo woven bucket… one bucket at a time, with some thirty to forty tons of dirt. Just 12 of us dug up a 500 meter tunnel by hand, the total length of the tunnel over 600 kilometers. There were 160 students with the average age of 17. I found out later, the youngest student among us was 12 years old, so this was child labor.

Those were the years we should be in school, but we weren't. Don't get misled that I can keep on talking and write my blog everyday, my fellow workers are pretty much illiterate. These people are now in their fifties, they all have a lot of health issues, from all their hard labor when they were 12 to 17 years old, Luckily, I am quite healthy, I'm okay. I feel I'm obligated to walk this road again, because they buried my fellow students, 16-17 year kids buried under the mountain, died from land slides, explosions, nobody cared or asked, only their own relatives traveled the long distance to check it out.

NARRATOR: So last summer, he set out from Beijing on his bicycle and began what he calls a "grassroots reporting trip" through four neighboring provinces. He came back shaken but inspired…

ZHANG SHIHE: The real purpose of my trip is to observe how people live, the real life of a regular citizen…what's outside Beijing, that what I wanted to find out.

After I left the city and took a trip outside, I felt the reality was not that hopeful, not worth being hopeful about. So I decided to live the rest of my honestly, and to honestly record the people. I felt this from the bottom of my heart. So from then until now, I have been following through…a few years ago I still wrote some lighter pieces. But now I am fully involved in society, reflecting on how the common people live.

NARRATOR: Still, like most other Chinese living under the current regime, he is well aware of the dangers of speaking out and admits to a constant routine of self-censorship. When asked, he had only one real hope for the future of his country:

ZHANG SHIHE: I don't have huge ambitions. I only have a very small desire they will allow us freedom of expression. Just this is enough. Let us express ourselves. I don't even expect anybody to listen. Just to express oneself is enough. We should not have the garbage collector, laborers, uneducated farmers saying "I am afraid to speak up," making them feel suppressed. They're not even about ideals. The purpose of their life is making money to raise their families, and they're afraid, saying: "I can't say such things". This is a basic right of human beings, therefore I ask that we be given freedom of speech.

There's a very strange logic here, let me explain. When you mention freedom of speech to officials in China, their version of human rights is the basic rights of life. When you can gain that then you can gain other. I feel that freedom of speech and these basic rights should not be in the order they are.

Let's take it further…so you allow the these basic rights but don't allow freedom of speech." That's like allowing a woman to give birth but not allowing the baby to cry. I know this example is extreme. But this is the reality. They are indivisible. One needs to cry, as well as be born, and also to live. I don't agree that a human should have to gain the basic rights of life before they win other rights. This represents a revision, a type of literalism. Why? Under this logic, everyone believes we should have the basic rights first. Live first, and deal with the rest later. Therefore, if we are in this phase, just how long will this last? There is no measure, so while we're in this phase, no one can speak, no one wants freedom of speech, no one wants their own rights, and we all speak of this in terms of basic rights. Human rights are human rights.

Did you know China had a human rights exhibition? Can human rights be exhibited? To see, to hear, to inform, to educate the public, these are the basic elements. Human rights are a concept, a theory and an ideological trend. However, China demonstrated that human rights (after the liberation) are people having clothes to wear and food to eat. Are these human rights? You use language to argue that we have human rights since we have clothes to wear. In the past, we didn't even have clothes to wear…that implies we didn't have human rights. Well, not necessarily, because even if someone doesn't have clothes to wear he can still have an equal conversation with the landlord, he is not afraid to speak up. Now we have clothes but don't dare speak.

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