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BEIJING (Reuters) - China's muzzled press and burgeoning Internet have given citizen reporters an audience and an opportunity -- however fleeting -- to spread news quicker than government censors can control it.
But the ability of bloggers to dodge censors and provide a voice for China's poor and disadvantaged by covering news events Beijing would rather be left unreported has also given some bloggers the chance to profit from disseminating a rare commodity in China -- uncensored news.
Zhou Shuguang, who blogs under the name of "Zola", is a citizen reporter who found that the initial admiration he received from Internet surfers for championing the downtrodden soon turned to scorn for taking their money.
Zhou, a 26-year-old vegetable-seller from a small town in China's heartland province of Hunan, became famous after blogging about his experiences "covering" a David-and-Goliath battle between developers and residents in the booming southwestern city of Chongqing.
"Originally I went to Chongqing with selling vegetables in mind. I thought that if I could get famous, then business would be better," said Zhou, who was lauded, if inaccurately, as China's "first citizen reporter" in local media reports.
The moniker was enough for the slight, bespectacled former IT student to be solicited by others battling eviction orders across China's vast heartland, where cash-strapped local governments often collude with developers and hired thugs to seize land from powerless residents.
Zhou, who took some 7,000 yuan ($940) in donations to finance his Chongqing trip, has also taken money from residents, he insists, to cover the cost of travel and reporting on their property disputes.
"It's travel, it's entertainment. It's not work," Zhou said during an interview at a hotel in Beijing.
For desperate residents facing eviction from their homes, and unable to draw attention to their plights in China's controlled press, it's a price worth paying.
"In not one single case has the government been in communication with the residents. The home-owners have no way of raising their voice," Zhou said.
Local propaganda offices in China regularly bar newspaper editors and TV station directors from reporting on sensitive issues such as high-profile corruption cases and disasters.
But authorities have little sway over web-savvy citizens filming embarrassing incidents and posting them on the Internet. Often by the time censors delete such postings, they've already been seen by tens of thousands of people.
In June, a government order scotching media coverage of a rare demonstration involving thousands of residents in the southeastern port city of Xiamen saw bloggers replace TV stations as the first source for up-to-the-minute coverage of the protest against local government plans for a toxic chemical factory.
Video footage and photos of gas-masked protesters marching in Xiamen appeared online instantaneously, spreading across blogs and chat-rooms too quickly for China's pervasive Internet surveillance machine to intercept them.
In the same month, a letter posted on a popular local Web site claiming to be written by 400 fathers appealing for help to find their kidnapped children, ignited a national scandal leading to the rescue of thousands of adults and children forced to work as slaves in brick kilns in northern Shanxi province.
Bloggers have posted photographs and videos of unreported student riots this year sparked by anger over the wording on their graduate diplomas.
"People are going through the Internet because they cannot get what they want through conventional media," said Vincent Brossard, Asia desk chief of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press rights group which ranked China 163rd out of 169 countries in a survey on press freedom last month.
Brossard estimates there are hundreds, "if not thousands", of citizen reporters in China, despite its status as the world's leading jailer of journalists, and where at least 50 "cyber-dissidents" remain behind bars.
Some are trained by foreign human rights groups and NGOs in the arts of multi-media reporting and many enjoy the support of local tech enthusiasts who keep their reports online, even as censors scramble to delete them.
"Some do it because they have a social commitment, or even a political commitment. Some people do it for the money, because they can get reimbursements from villagers or citizens interested in seeing their problems put on the Internet," Brossard said.
While government corruption unchecked by local media may have created a market for citizen reporters to exploit, it has also created more sinister avenues for opportunists.
Scams involving journalists and people posing as journalists to demand hush money are common in China, where the Internet is also used as a platform for muck-raking and fake news.
Authorities jailed four men in October who tried to blackmail a local official by threatening to write incriminating information about government abuse of power in land usage.
In January, a local reporter for a Beijing-based newspaper was beaten to death by hired thugs during an investigation into an unlicensed coal mine in Shanxi province. Officials there said he lacked accreditation and suggested he may have been seeking payoffs in return for not reporting problems at the mine.
Zhou's frank admission of taking payment to help residents buy domain names, set up Web sites and publicise their plights online have earned him derision from Internet surfers, many of whom initially applauded his pluck.
He remains unapologetic, however, and hits back at critics in lengthy blog posts, saying he never had any intention but to make a name for himself -- and hopefully some publicity for his vegetable business in Hunan.
"I don't want people to think I'm some kind of idol or hero," he said. "I don't have that responsibility. That's the government's responsibility."