The spread of the novel coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 pandemic have provided a powerful test of social and governance systems. Neither of the world’s two leading powers, China and the United States, has been particularly distinguished in responding. In China, an initial bout of political denial allowed the virus to spread for weeks, first domestically and then globally, before a set of forceful measures proved reasonably effective. (The Chinese government also should have been better prepared, given that viruses have jumped from animal hosts to humans within its territory on multiple occasions in the past.) The United States underwent its own bout of political denial before adopting social-distancing policies; even now, its lack of investment in public health leaves it ill-equipped for this sort of emergency.
The response of the bureaucratic and often technophobic European Union may prove even worse: Italy, although far from the epicenter of the outbreak, has four times the per capita rate of cases as China does, and even famously orderly Germany is already at half China’s rate. Nations in other parts of the world, such as information-manipulating Iran, provide worse examples yet.
Focusing on the countries that have done worst, however, may be less useful at this point than considering which country has so far done best: Taiwan. Despite being treated by the World Health Organization as part of China, and despite having done far broader testing than the United States (meaning the true rate of infection is far less hidden), Taiwan has only one-fifth the rate of known cases in the United States and less than one-tenth the rate in widely praised Singapore. Infections could yet spike again, especially with the global spread making visitors from around the world vectors of the virus. Yet the story of Taiwan’s initial success is worth sharing not just because of its lessons for containing the present pandemic but also because of its broader lessons about navigating pressing challenges around technology and democracy.
Taiwan’s success has rested on a fusion of technology, activism, and civic participation. A small but technologically cutting-edge democracy, living in the shadow of the superpower across the strait, Taiwan has in recent years developed one of the world’s most vibrant political cultures by making technology work to democracy’s advantage rather than detriment. This culture of civic technology has proved to be the country’s strongest immune response to the new coronavirus.
The value of Taiwan’s tech-enabled civic culture has become abundantly clear in the current crisis. Bottom-up information sharing, public-private partnerships, “hacktivism” (activism through the building of quick-and-dirty but effective proofs of concept for online public services), and participatory collective action have been central to the country’s success in coordinating a consensual and transparent set of responses to the coronavirus. A recent report from the Stanford University School of Medicine documents 124 distinct interventions that Taiwan implemented with remarkable speed. Many of these interventions bubbled into the public sector through community initiatives, hackathons, and digital deliberation on the vTaiwan digital democracy platform, on which almost half the country’s population participates. (The platform enables large-scale hacktivism, civic deliberation, and scaling up of initiatives in an orderly and largely consensual manner.) A decentralized community of participants used tools such as Slack and HackMD to refine successful projects. (Much of our analysis is based on open interviews through these tools with leaders in the g0v community of civic hackers.)
One of the most celebrated examples is the Face Mask Map, a collaboration initiated by an entrepreneur working with g0v. To prevent the panicked buying of facemasks, which hindered Taiwan’s response to SARS in 2003, the government instituted a national rationing scheme of two facemasks per week per citizen. Anticipating that this national policy would be insufficient to avoid local runs on pharmacies, the government (via its prestigious digital ministry) released an application programming interface (API) that provided real-time, location-specific data to the public on mask availability.
THE POWER OF PARTICIPATION
Why has Taiwan succeeded where others have faltered? It is too early to claim either definitive success in or a thorough understanding of a still unfolding crisis. But it is clear that the Taiwanese approach has, in the early stages of the pandemic, proved more effective than those in China, elsewhere in Asia, Europe, or the United States.
THE TAIWAN MODEL Taiwan’s success has precedents. One example comes from the United States: the rapid mobilization after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The country turned on a dime and outstripped the more centrally directed efforts of Germany, Japan, and later, the Soviet Union, through a range of government and citizen-driven industrial and technological innovations. The key, for both the United States then and Taiwan now, was catalyzing the widespread desire among citizens to be useful producers, and not just consumers, of the tools needed for victory over an enemy—whether a foreign military or a lethal virus. Societies that fail to do so in a time of crisis are wasting their most critical resource.
Taiwan has demonstrated the same capacity when confronted with other challenges. Its recent presidential election, for example, might represent the democratic world’s greatest victory yet over digital disinformation. Facing the world’s highest volume of disinformation (flowing mostly from mainland China), Taiwan harnessed citizen-built and operated platforms, powered by voluntary reporting, to check and rebut false claims. The citizenry also collaboratively designed and quickly deployed a new media-literacy curriculum ahead of the election. A populist, Beijing-backed candidate lost the election by 20 points.
Taiwan has achieved similar successes in a range of other policy areas, including in striking a balance between protecting privacy and enabling citizen-organized “data collaboratives”; achieving exceptional environmental standards and climate emission abatement; protecting workers in the “gig economy” without preventing the rise of innovative digital services; and fostering civic participation with creative engagement and voting tools.
This emerging Taiwanese model holds powerful promise beyond the current crisis. Debates about technological development tend to focus on the leading competitors in the race for global prestige, holding the Chinese technocratic-authoritarian surveillance state up against the corporate-capitalist approach in the United States. Taiwan offers another path—one that should hold appeal across ideological lines in democratic societies, including the United States. The left will appreciate that the g0v civic-hacker movement grew out of work with the Sunflower Movement, Taiwan’s answer to Occupy Wall Street. (In contrast to Occupy, g0v ended up giving Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement the tools to gain a lasting institutional foothold in the digital ministry.) At the same time, by showing how a small, young, and scrappy democracy can thrive in the shadow of Beijing’s growing authoritarianism, Taiwan provides an example that should appeal to China hawks on the right.
Taiwan offers an alternative to both the top-down surveillance of the Chinese state and the advertising-driven Western tech giants. It has harnessed technology as a tool of democratic creativity (rather than, like Europe, focusing just on limiting the frightening harms of surveillance). And by doing so, Taiwan has created a model that holds great promise in the ongoing fight not only against the coronavirus but also against menacing dystopian technological futures.