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Portnoy Zheng: The blogger who inspired the world to talk together

He is too humble to agree with me, but I'm in no way exaggerating when I say that Portnoy Zheng was the inspiration behind Global Voices’ Lingua project, which has made selected Global Voices’ articles available to a real global audience of Arabic, Bangla, Chinese, Farsi, French, Japanese, Malagasy, Portuguese, and Spanish speakers.

It all started back in 2005, when Global Voices was still taking off the English speaking ground. Portnoy fell in love with the idea and soon after started to translate and publish on his Chinese blog posts from GVO. The project soon found its own home and later he recruited some Chinese speaking volunteers to help translate Global Voices content into traditional and simplified Chinese, the third language on the blogosphere.

Now people from Madagascar can hear voices from Korea, and the Arabian blogosphere can echo a story from China. It is the surpassing of GVO's language barrier, thanks to a system inspired by Portnoy's initiative, hard work and motivation. There are also German and Hindi sites coming out, and the more websites set up, the more the world converses and people understand each other.

Portnoy began collaborating as a volunteer translator for Lingua in June 2006 (after having translated more than 100 posts on his own) and soon after became a Global Voices author, reporting on the Taiwanese blogosphere, which is focused mainly on travel and technology, and some politics. And now that he has a tiny bit more time after finishing the mandatory 18 months military service required for all Taiwanese young men, he is planning to start up a very interesting project. Read on!

New Year
New Year's celebrations in Taiwan

Happy New Year, Portnoy! What are your wishes for the Year of the Rat?

I have a lot of wishes. I wish all the GVO companions good fortune and good luck in the New Year, wish GVO keeps on doing marvelously and wish all people in the world have more freedom of expression. I also wish my Dad good health since he is a 70-year-old boy who never follows medical prescription.

Could you tell us how the new year celebrations in Taiwan are different from those in mainland China? Is there any special flavor to it?

In Taiwan, people celebrate lunar new year in many ways. Family members will gather together at the Eve of New Year for a hearty dinner. Elders give youngsters “red envelopes” with money inside as a symbol of good fortune for the coming year. At midnight, fireworks and firecrackers light up the street and the sky although most of them are illegal. On the first day, people start to visit or call or message or email all their friends to wish them happy new year. On the second day, married daughters will come home to visit their families….

However, the atmosphere of celebration is losing quickly with each year's passing. More and more people just take new year as a usual 5 -day-long vacation. No dancing dragons and lions on the street anymore. No special TV programs except for re-airing Hollywood films and reality shows. Actually, if you are not shopping in a department store, you might not aware of that the New Year is here. I have no experience in mainland China during New Year's period, but I guess the feeling of New Year should be stronger there.

There are still a lot of people (and travel business) trying hard to restore the feeling of New Year in Taiwan or simply recreate it. However, I haven't got a chance to visit these sites, so…well, I hope there is new flavor for me this year, because I am planning to visit one of the traveling site.

Let's get to business. How long have you been blogging and why?

I started blogging in January, 2005. I was in my first year of Master degree in Telecommunication and Journalism then and I found blogging issues spreading quickly on the Internet, therefore I began to dig into these issues and wrote reports on blogging. Later I thought I should start a blog by myself since I was researching it. Gradually I found blog is a very powerful tool to know the world and to let the world know me. I learned a lot of knowledge about our society, our politic chaos, and activists who try to make some change. You will never access these knowledge on Taiwanese mainstream media. And I now also become an activist myself working with many social groups or NGOs to help them spread their ideas.

What do you blog about? How would you describe your blog in Chinese to someone who can't read it?

The main theme of my blog is media, especially new media (theory, business, guideline and experience). I also blog about my thoughts on politics, technologies, news, and life. Sometimes I just put funny and crazy videos from video sites to make my readers happy.

I am an online activist dreaming of world peace–and I believe my blog reflects that.

You haven't updated lately Working Man, your ‘hyperpersonal blog in English'. Is it just a matter of finding the time?

Actually, I spend most of my leisure time updating my Chinese blog or playing with new web 2.0 services in order to find out the missing link between high-tech and low-democratic level in Taiwan, so TIME is a big problem. The minor problem is that I don't want to blog the same old topics that were in my Chinese blog already on my English blog….I guess I just have to stop Chinese blogging to initiate English blogging.

Could you tell us a bit more about these attempts to find the missing link between high-tech and low-democratic levels in Taiwan? What is it about?

People probably know that Taiwan is one of the countries (or economic entities if you don't think Taiwan is a country) that enjoy highest level of free expression in the world. And Taiwan is also the most important 3C (computer, communication, consumer electronics) producer in the world. We scores high on the ranking of e-commerce and e-government. We have very high broadband penetration (about 70 per cent) and maybe the highest cell-phone penetration in the world (above 100 per cent for many years). We have more than ten local 24-hour news channel broadcasting on cable and digital TV platform. But, the result of the combination of all these is that we have a lot of consumers but no citizens, at least not enough. Many bloggers like me have been doing experiment of citizen journalism for years, but our achievement is rather small comparing to the chaos created by our MSM and politicians. There seems to be a bottleneck, and that is what I am trying to figure out.

As a researcher in Citizen Journalism, how would you describe the difference it is making to Taiwan? How reliable is mainstream media there?

Citizen journalism in Taiwan is facing two obstacles that might sound creepy to others. One obstacle is that our mainstream media have cultivated Taiwanese too deep that they don't know what to trust and therefore treat news as entertainment. Yes, people here in Taiwan love watching news channels because they love entertainment and entertainment is the only thing they get, in fact. People don't treat news and journalists seriously so why would people try to do journalism on their own? The other obstacle is that mainstream media doesn't treat citizen journalism seriously, too. So the idea of citizen journalism isn't propagating that fast as in other countries with similar democracy and Internet penetration.

Are the any other problems that bloggers face in Taiwan, such as freedom of speech? I know that Chinese bloggers can not access Taiwanese blogs…

Freedom of speech is not a problem to Taiwanese bloggers. There are some legal restrictions such like “no alcohol and cigarette promotion are allowed”, “websites containing contents only for adults should put a sign onto themselves”….nothing really serious and nobody is taking these restrictions seriously. Most of the Taiwan BSPs are over-blocked by GFW of China because the most part of blogosphere is about life , traveling, emotion, funny jokes and cartoons… as the situation in every blogosphere elsewhere in the world. It is a great pity that bloggers across the strait cannot embrace full connection through the web. However, it is completely OK for Taiwanese blogger to visit China blogosphere (if it is not blocked in its own country), so I encourage Taiwanese bloggers to access more China bloggers more often and to make some friends with each other. I personally get acquainted with many bloggers based in China in this way.

Considering that Taiwan gets only little media attention in the international press, how important is it for the Taiwanese blogosphere to show the world a little bit more about their country?

Taiwanese are worrying about this very much. Our international status is suppressed by China government. We are prohibited from being apart of U.N., W.H.O., and all the global organizations that need an ID as a country. Taiwanese people always feel sad and sometimes anguished because Taiwan is never mentioned by international press except when there is a new bloody fight happening in our Congress.

But Taiwanese news media is also responsible for this situation since they don't educate their audience about the world. Our commercial news channels are sometimes even more limited than what international press does to Taiwan. So, many Taiwanese bloggers shoulder that responsibility to tell their readers much more about the globe–in Chinese. Most of these bloggers are students, travelers, immigrants, and social activists. However, few bloggers are doing the opposite–to tell the world what Taiwan really is. Actually I don't know any Taiwanese blogger outside Chinese lingua team who is doing such work. There are several English native speaking bloggers with Taiwanese ID or studying in Taiwan doing great jobs like Michael Turton, but the communication between the two Taiwanese blogospheres is very limited because of language restrictions I guess.

What is your most memorable blogging experience?

I would say that the last election period of Taipei city council in Dec, 2006 is my most unforgettable blogging experience. Several blogger friends and I (most are Chinese Lingua translators and supporters) start a volunteer election campaign for Green Party, a very small political party for environmental and social justice. We gathered almost every A-list blogger in Taiwan to support Green Party's candidates publicly on his or her own blog. Although the result is disappointing, that is the first web 2.0 campaign ever in Taiwan political history.

I thought you were going to say that it was translating GVO posts! What motivated you to do it?

I fell in love with GVO at first sight. But then I haven't got the idea to translate it. I just read it and hoped more and more Taiwanese netizens would get to know it, because I believed that as long as more Taiwanese know more about the world, the people of the world, the thoughts of these people, they will be freed from the cage built by creepy MSM in Taiwan and therefore growing compassion and happiness like what I had experienced. One day, a prominent blogger, inertia, wrote about GVO in his blog, gave me this idea of translation. I am an easily motivated person so I just began translating.

And from your idea, the Lingua arm of GVO was born. What do you think about the project and what are your expectations for the Global Voices translated sites?

I won't say that Lingua is my idea. I am merely a man who want more people in my community to know GVO. This is a simple and direct thought that everyone could have think of. Lingua is born with the power and diligence of those great people I met in Delhi–Ethan Zuckerman, Rebecca MacKinnon, David Sasaki, Alice Baker…etc.–They make my dream come true. I love Lingua as it is right now. However, I would like to see each Lingua site become the axis of citizen journalism in each language community. Maybe Lingua would work closer with Rising Voices project, or other citizen journalism project in different regions.

Is it true that English and Taiwanese blog communities are largely independent of one another? Are there other bridge blogs that could be of interest to our public?

The fact is: yes. I am always expecting and encouraging more bridgebloggers to show up. I am also expecting myself to be one. However, that is not easy. There are still a lot of lessons for me to learn from the GVO community.

Now you have just finished the military service and have more free time, are there any interesting projects up your sleeve?

I am lucky to find a job right after I finished my mandatory military service. So I'll be digging into it for some time to get accustomed to it. However, I am still a easily motivated blogger (ha), so I am going to start a new blog project called “Blue Camp” which focus on Information policy and digital solutions. The Presidential election of Taiwan is heating up and I want those candidates to give me and all the people who care about these topics their answers to them. Will they really care about blogger's ideas? I don't know, but I am just going to do it.

Portnoy Zheng

Portnoy speaking at a citizen journalism conference in Taipei, Taiwan

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