Can Taiwan Provide the Alternative to Digital Authoritarianism?

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Can Taiwan Provide the Alternative to Digital Authoritarianism?

China and Taiwan are becoming digital states in parallel — China as a digital authoritarian regime, and Taiwan as a digital democracy.

Can Taiwan Provide the Alternative to Digital Authoritarianism?
Credit: Depositphotos

When the Chinese Communist Party marked its centennial anniversary on July 1, China analysts were closely watching for any clues as to what Chairman Xi Jinping will do next. Taiwan, on the other hand, is moving forward with an Open Parliament plan introduced in June 2020 and a policy of radical transparency. China and Taiwan are becoming digital states in parallel — China as a digital authoritarian regime, and Taiwan as a digital democracy. Of the two, digital authoritarianism is easier to implement and there is much scholarship focused on defining and understanding it. There is no clear model of what a digital democracy is yet, but Taiwan is in the process of creating one.

What exactly is the Open Parliament plan? Introduced by Legislator Freddy Lim last year, it was partly inspired by Taiwan’s Open Government National Action Plan. The Open Parliament plan lays out five major objectives for Taiwan’s parliament, knowns as the Legislative Yuan (LY): transparency, openness, participation, digitization, and literacy. In an interview, Lim said he has long been interested in tech and politics, adding: “The reason to pursue this initiative was for a new vision of what the future of government and parliament should be like.”

The Open Parliament plan includes reforms such as a dedicated TV broadcast of the LY, much like CSPAN in the U.S. but with an important addition of sign language. It also banned closed door interparty negotiations, including at the committee levels. Another major change will be publicly available digital data such as voting records, budgets, and conflicts of interest. At present, online information is limited and most records must be physically requested at the LY.

Similarly, Taiwan’s Open Government National Action Plan focuses on increasing transparency, providing data, and increasing civic participation through a series of policy changes throughout Taiwan’s government. Taiwan cannot be a formal member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) because it is not recognized as a country internationally. Nevertheless, it announced in 2019 it would create its own national plan.

Digital Minister of Taiwan Audrey Tang described the OGP as “an international initiative that advocates core values such as transparency, accountability, participation and inclusion, with an emphasis on cooperation and co-creation of the government and civil society. These are all in line with what we are doing here in Taiwan.” Tang hopes the Open Government National Action Plan will be a path for Taiwan to enter the OGP.

One can’t discuss Taiwan’s Open Parliament or Open Government plan without talking about civil society and grassroots organization in the tech community known as “civic tech.”  Ttcat, co-founder of Doublethink Lab, defined civic tech as “Tech to promote democracy and help give citizens a voice.”

“Tech should be built by citizens and owned by civil society,” Ttcat added.

Examples of civic tech in Taiwan abound, such as the mask map that was used in the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, a new contact-tracing QR check-in system for the current outbreak, fact-checking bots, and crowdsourcing policy from citizens, among others. Many of those responsible for these initiatives belong to a community called g0v (gov zero). “[Civic tech] is the key to the future of Taiwan’s governance, how we drive that whole system forward. Civic tech will play a very important role,” Lim said.

Tang is also optimistic: “I believe many of the challenges we face today, including the pandemic and the infodemic, can be overcome by deepening democracy and promoting what I call “People-Public-Private Partnerships.”

Tang has become the most famous member of the civic tech community after joining the Tsai administration. However, she is only one person in what would be best described as an entire ecosystem of tech-activists. For the Open Parliament Plan, 17 members of civil society were involved, outnumbering the seven legislators.

“‘To give no trust is to get no trust.’ Open government not only facilitates pubic participation in public affairs, but is also a way to nurture mutual trust. And when such mutual trust exists, new possibilities for collective actions thrive,” said Tang.

According to Lim, the key difference between Taiwan and China is that in Taiwan, there is oversight for the use of technology, such as de-linking data, and time-limits to expanded powers during the pandemic. Brian Hioe, a founding editor of New Bloom magazine, emphasized the importance of civil society as Taiwan incorporates more technology into governance. For instance, Taiwan’s government currently expanded its powers to collect data during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It requires civic oversight to ensure that the government does not maintain data on citizens after the pandemic ends. Oversight is key to keep any government in check — even democratic ones — and that’s also true of the Taiwanese government.”

A looming example of a government without oversight or trust is the Communist Party in China, which increasingly relies on digital authoritarianism to monitor and control the population. The most extreme examples are in the periphery territories: Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. However, even the streets of Beijing are laden with surveillance cameras, as demonstrated by an artist who devised a way to avoid 90 cameras dotted along a single street.

“There is fundamental difference between Taiwan’s digital democracy and the PRC regime’s digital authoritarianism,” said Tang. “While Beijing uses digital tools such as the Social Credit System and state censorship, in Taiwan the social sector actively creates digital infrastructures to enable everyday citizens to propose and express opinions on policy reforms.”

“In a digital democracy, transparency is about making the state transparent to the public,” she continued. “Under digital authoritarianism, the word ‘transparency’ means making citizens transparent to the state.”

According to Amy Studdard, director for technology and democracy at the International Republican Institute “Taiwan is at the forefront of thinking about how technology can advance democratic principles. In an era of system competition, Taiwan’s success in doing so demonstrates to the world that digital democracy – not digital authoritarianism – can be the political system of the future.”

However, Ttcat wants Taiwan’s democracy to be thought of outside the context of a cross-strait competition. “China’s digital authoritarianism should [be compared to other] authoritarian regimes, not with democratic countries. Despite Taiwan and China’s has a long history of shared culture and ethnicities, we are running very different governance systems.”

“While the world may see Taiwan as offering an alternative to China, it’s more of a question whether Taiwan can affect China,” Hioe said. “It really depends on if Chinese citizens are able to learn about efforts at digital democracy in Taiwan and questions of access to that information.”

This all begs the question: Can we call Taiwan a digital democracy yet? “People are aware of Audrey Tang and what she does, but most people don’t know what digital democracy is,” said Ttcat.

“Taiwan’s government would say yes, but personally we still have a lot to work on. It is from a grassroots level,” said Lim. Likewise, Hioe cautioned that “digital democracy [could put] a veneer of new paint on bureaucratic processes which are still slow to change or [hide] that while some elements of government modernize and are brought into the digital age, other elements lag behind.” Creating new apps to provide discreet services is not the same as comprehensive modernization.

The digitization of Taiwan’s democracy may not be complete, but the efforts of its government and civil society point to a viable alternative to digital authoritarianism. The digital tools and policies to reform its government can be applied in other democracies.

“For China, maybe only one thing is certain, that the propaganda narrative they ran for years— that democracy is not for Asia— is no longer appealing under Taiwan’s progress,” said Ttcat.