As Taiwan seeks to gain international space amid Beijing’s “sharp power,” it has pursued a new avenue for promoting its “warm power” (暖實力) through its diplomatic efforts to share the island’s open government and digital technology experience with other countries. On the sidelines of the 74th United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September 2019, Taiwan’s first digital minister without portfolio Audrey Tang (唐鳳) spoke at several forums in New York on how Taiwan could advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals via its digital governance experience. Tang has called Taipei’s overseas exchanges on digital governance its “warm power”—in contrast to China’s “sharp power.” Indeed, Taiwan’s teeming civic technology community has enabled new forms of citizen participation and collaboration with the government that serve to strengthen democratic governance.
The two sides of the Taiwan Strait could not be more different when it comes to the use of technology to impact governance issues. The difference between the two sides is at bottom the function of the nature of the regime. Taiwan’s democratic system and China’s authoritarian state each have different political objectives. For China, technology has become a more potent tool to exert control over wayward or contentious populations under Chinese rule. One of the most extreme examples of techno-governance under an authoritarian state today is the Chinese government’s use of artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition technology, and other surveillance technology to exert a new level of absolute control over its Uyghur population of 11 million in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Technology has helped Chinese authorities round up more than one million Uyghurs, as well as Kazakhs, who are now being held in internment camps in China, and Xinjiang has become a high-tech police state replete with security cameras and endless checkpoints. Chinese security camera manufacturers Hikvision and Dahua Technology have played key roles in the mass surveillance of Uyghurs under AI-enabled ethno-religious persecution.
By contrast, Taiwan’s government has used technology to enhance civic interest and participation in governance issues and strengthen public trust in government. In Taiwan, online collaboration has become a cornerstone of governance. Taiwan’s government has called for greater online discussion and participation through its national platforms such as “vTaiwan” and “Join,” as well as Taipei City’s “i-Voting.” vTaiwan is an online-offline consultative process that brings together government ministries, elected representatives, scholars, business leaders, civil society organizations, and citizens to participate in government decision-making on issues related to the digital economy. Since it was launched, vTaiwan has addressed at least 30 issues, and the majority of issues discussed through vTaiwan has led to government action. In addition, the Join online platform enables anyone to start an e-petition, and once the e-petition has 5,000 signatures, the government must publicly respond. Taipei City Government’s i-Voting platform enables city residents to cast online ballots on city-wide issues, such as voting on opening hours of the Taipei Zoo.
Open government and social entrepreneurship are important components of boosting civic participation in policymaking. As part of its open government initiative, Taiwan’s government has created a network of “Participation Officers” (開放政府聯絡人) (PO) comprised of public officials in each ministry who can assist the public sector and general public to understand each other’s viewpoints on policy issues. The network of POs strives to engage civil society on governance issues while also integrating the internal views and positions of government stakeholders at all levels and across different ministries. In addition, Taiwan has promoted social innovation, or the creation of new solutions to social issues through innovative ideas and technological applications, according to Minister Tang. As a result, Taiwan’s government launched the Social Innovation Lab (社會創新實驗中心) in 2017 in Taipei and other units throughout the island to support “social enterprises,” which transform business ideas from a profit-driven model towards solving social issues and making societal impact.
Since 2012, the civic technology (also known as civic tech, 公民科技) movement has blossomed in Taiwan. Civic tech creates new technology tools to promote citizen participation and uses open data to enhance government transparency, legislative supervision, and government accountability. Through data visualization tools that make technical policy discussions more accessible and easier to understand, civic tech helps to provide access to critical information on governance issues to a lay audience. A primary objective is to invigorate Taiwan’s civil society to become more interested and more actively engaged in online and offline dialogue on current policy and governance issues. As Minister Tang wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in October 2019, “Democracy improves as more people participate. And digital technology remains one of the best ways to improve participation—as long as the focus is on finding common ground and creating consensus, not division.”
Are there limits to technology-driven political change, particularly since social media platforms can contribute to polarization of opinions? Facebook, Twitter, and other social media and messaging platforms have been widely cited as playing a critical role in recent revolutions and social movements spanning from the Middle East and North Africa to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Protesters in the the early Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 organized online and captured videos and images of the demonstrations against autocratic regimes. During the 2014 Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, students protesting the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (海峽兩岸服務貿易協議) with China occupied Taiwan’s legislature, set up wireless Internet to livestream from inside the building, and used crowdfunding on the Internet to raise money for the movement. More recently, Hong Kong protesters have utilized online platforms such as LIHKG and messaging app Telegram to organize and swiftly mobilize demonstrators, while the messaging app has helped to protect the identities of Hong Kong protesters from police infiltration and Chinese government retaliation. Yet some analysts have argued that such massive and spontaneous social-media driven revolutions and rebellions have all ended in failure because they cannot, by their “leaderless” nature, bridge disagreements or build consensus. They argue that political capital and bargaining, which technology-driven revolutions lack, are necessary to effectively translate such anti-government movements into lasting political change.
However, Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement provides an example of civic tech in action that led to political change. During the Sunflower Movement, civic-minded hackers and computer programmers of the gØv (“gov-zero,” 零時政府) movement within Taiwan’s civic tech community rose to prominence. Minister Tang, who was a civic hacker during the Sunflower Movement, has been an active contributor to the gØv community. Since its inception in 2012, the gØv community has sought to make government information more understandable and accessible to all members of society. The gØv community later became incorporated into Taiwan’s democratic governance process following the Sunflower Movement. Taiwan’s promotion of open government and digital governance aims to strengthen the island’s participatory democracy and invigorate civic engagement through online platforms.
On the international stage, Taiwan has used its digital governance experience to collaborate with other countries. In 2018 and 2019, Taiwan’s government sent Minister Tang to speak on digital governance at several forums, including at Columbia University and the Asia Society Policy Institute, in New York, while the UN General Assembly convened. Tang highlighted Taiwan’s adherence to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), despite remaining excluded from the international body. Minister Tang stated that Taiwan’s efforts on digital governance align with SDG targets such as enhancing international cooperation on technology and public-private and civic society partnerships. Tang’s appearances in New York were part of the Foreign Ministry’s broader campaign to promote Taiwan’s inclusion in SDG-related meetings and consultations.
As Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been promoting a “Taiwan Can Help” motto, the country’s innovative capability and leadership in civic technology digital governance serves as another venue for bilateral and multilateral cooperation and to promote Taiwan’s standing in the world. Minister Tang said that sharing Taiwan’s experiences in digital governance is one of the ways that the island can break through its diplomatic challenges. Taiwan could share its technological and digital tools of governance with newer democracies that may not have the adequate institutional capacity to engage the public as well as manage the challenges of the digital age, including misinformation and disinformation.
Amid the global surge in interest in open government and accountability, Taiwan has expressed interest in sharing best practices and joining the multilateral, intergovernmental Open Government Partnership (OGP, 開放政府夥伴關係). Since its inception in 2011, 79 countries and 20 local members have joined the OGP, including the United States, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico. These national and subnational governments, working alongside civil society organizations, must create an action plan comprised of numerous commitments to open government. While Taiwan is unable to join as a member country, it has sent civil society organizations including the Open Culture Foundation and gØv community to the OGP summits.
The main point: Taiwan has utilized online platforms to enhance public interest and participation in democratic governance. At the same time, Taiwan is promoting its digital governance experience as a way to enhance cooperation with other countries and elevate its international standing through its “warm power” in contrast to China’s “sharp power.”