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Tiger Temple: China's Netizen of the People

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

BEIJING – On one of the bluest of "blue sky" days in Beijing this past weekend (a rare occurrence in this usually smog-filled city), a handful of skinny young Chinese men armed with cameras and notebooks were clustered around an older man with shoulder-length hair and wire-rimmed glasses – looking like groupies surrounding their favorite rock star backstage.

Except this was no rock concert.

It was the third annual Beijing Bloggers' Conference. 

That's right. On this beautiful autumn day, a couple hundred young folks decided to forego the crisp sunshine and unseasonably balmy weather to burrow into a large conference hall at Tsinghua Science Park in the capital's northwestern corner to frankly talk about the Internet, blogging, podcasts, investment opportunities, and other more technical matters.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Click here for video about censorship in China.

The groupies were circled around a man known popularly online as "Tiger Temple" whose blog is rated the third most popular site in China for 2007 on sohu.com, a popular Chinese search engine . Sohu.com lauded him for blogging "with a heart of the common people."

The common touch

Tiger Temple, in real life 54-year-old Zhang Shihe, has been blogging for four years. He adopted the name "Tiger Temple" for online use; it refers to the Beijing neighborhood in which he lives. His "24 Hours Online" site, which is available only in Chinese, marks a departure from the typical Chinese-language blog here. 

For one, Zhang doesn't limit his topics to one theme like many bloggers often do. Although he does say he avoids any topics about which he knows nothing. But from a glance at his site, those topics would seem to be very few.

"I think one's life experience is very important," said Zhang one afternoon before the Beijing Bloggers' Conference, sitting in his two-room apartment just a stone's throw away from the Bird's Nest stadium, the huge stadium being built for the Olympics in northeast Beijing.

"I have lived for over half a century," he said. "So anything I see, it may remind me of something, or I may want to comment on it."

Zhang grew up the son of a card-carrying Communist Party couple from Beijing, whose household was a haven of political discourse and debate.  "I always disagreed with what my father thought," recalled the chain-smoking Zhang.  Even now, "we talk about which direction China should go, whether we should give up the way China is heading now or start over again with my generation."

This frank and open atmosphere wasn't always so.

Censorious times

Zhang grew up during modern China's most turbulent times. He's a member of the Lao San Jie ("Old Three Classes") or Lost Generation – those born in the late 1940s and early 1950s who weren't able to attend university because of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

During the revolution, the communist son spent his youth working in a steel factory, helping to build the Xiang Yu Xian, the east-west train line linking Hubei province in central China to the Chongqing municipality in the west.

But it wasn't long before his intellectual heritage took hold, and Zhang found himself in the ancient capital of Xi'an, opening a bookshop.

"I had four or five bookshops in the mid-80s that were very popular with writers. We had both Chinese and some western books back then," he said.

The political and cultural climate changed after the June 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protestors. "There were no more books," said Zhang.  "No more translations of books from overseas."

In 1993, the bookseller returned to Beijing to help look after his elderly parents and started his third new career, this time in advertising.

But when he discovered the world of blogs, he retired from advertising to devote himself to writing full-time.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Sitting in at the Beijing Bloggers' Conference last weekend.

Blogging 24/7

"I wasn't necessarily one of the pioneers, but I was part of that first generation of bloggers," explained Zhang. "I felt like it was an important medium to try… .[O]nce you started to write a blog, you feel responsible to renew it every day."

Zhang feels responsible for more than just updating the blog, he thinks the point is to also report on what is constantly happening around him.  

One of his early blogs in 2003 reported a stabbing on Wangfujing Street in downtown Beijing.  Although Chinese reporters eventually turned up after a slow police response, there was virtually no coverage in the local press. 

Zhang, who happened to photograph the incident as it happened, decided to post all his pictures online with commentary noting the police's slow response to the crime scene.

The reaction was immediate and tremendous, said Zhang. "I felt deeply how the blog was not as restrained as other media," he recounted.  "It was a very natural news report. …  I didn't realize how important it was at the time. …  But I did something that a blogger should do, something that blogs can be used to do.  So I've kept my blog as a reporting site all these years."

Citizen of the 'Net

A superficial trawl through Zhang's site suggests nothing out of the ordinary: a Chinese citizen touring Beijing or the countryside, taking photographs, introducing his subjects to readers, all without any overt political commentary.

Just this past summer, he set out from the Bird's Nest stadium on his bicycle and began what he calls a "grassroots reporting trip" through four provinces: Shanxi, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia. The idea was to provide instant blogs – containing text and photos – of what he was seeing and whom he was meeting.

But therein lays the power of his blog: stories of ordinary people in difficult circumstances.

One extraordinary entry introduced readers to an 80-year old peasant whom Zhang stumbled upon in northern Shaanxi. The farmer told him a shocking story of pollution and gross official negligence that led to the death of his wife.

Zhang - whose friends regularly caution him to be careful with his blogs - admitted that he censors himself, not unlike many Chinese writers online. "I especially avoid talking about politics," he said, adding that sometimes he uses what he describes as coded language to indicate his skepticism or cynicism about sensitive situations or events.

His circumspection has served him well; the authorities have yet to come knocking on his door. "I realize the blog is media. It's propaganda. It can influence other people," said Zhang. "And we live in China. We know how things work here."

And yet in the same breath, he said he refuses to bow to fear and intimidation.

"I think what I do is very natural," said Zhang. "I am telling the truth. It is the basic need of a human being."