My portfolios are youth engagement, open government, and then social innovation. In reverse order, social innovation is about promoting the idea that people don’t need to wait for the government to solve problems. People can solve problems by themselves, like the mask availability map. That’s a social innovation because we didn’t commission that.
When they innovate, we need to amplify their ideas to countrywide, and also reverse procurement to fulfill the open API needs of the civic innovators so that social innovation. Open government is about making the policymaking transparent to the citizens so they can participate and hold us accountable, and also to make the policymaking inclusive so that people even too young to vote can also start, say, petitions or any of those ways to participate, like participatory budgeting and things like that in a day-to-day basis, not just every four years or every two years. That’s open government.
Finally, youth engagement is about making sure that the young people are reverse-mentoring us to lead the future, and the older generation fulfill the resource that they need so that in each ministry that’s engaged to the youth engagement, we have at least two youth people under 35 as the reverse mentor to that minister. That’s the youth engagement.
It’s been half a year since we have the last local transmission. There are people in the border quarantine, so people are still returning to Taiwan. In the 14-day quarantine, some of them were detected as confirmed cases, but it doesn’t go viral if they were still in quarantine. It’s been half a year since we’ve had a local transmission case, which means we’re by and large post-COVID for the past half-year.
It’s a good idea. It’s a good idea, actually, to make mask a fashion statement because it’s a physical vaccine. It protects not just SARS but also the seasonal flu, but also SARS 2.0 and 3.0. Eventually, I think people will understand that wearing a mask is protecting ourself from our own unwashed hand and have nothing to do with respecting others or protecting the elderly.
These are good side effects, but mostly, it’s about protecting oneself against one’s own hands. I’m trying to get this message across the world. Of course, the Taiwanese people already understand the message.
It’s been ages, actually. Of course, the mask map is still working quite well, but we’ve moved on. We participated in the design of the triple stimulus voucher, where people can go outside and shop, like at their local catering or local retail. Once they spend around 3,000 NT dollars, which, I don’t know, a little over 100 US dollars, and then they will get two-third of that back from a nearby ATM.
They can actually withdraw two-third of that back as a cash back, but because it’s cash, it’s likely they will also spend it. It’s a way to reward outdoor shopping, and it’s quite successful. It comes in the digital form which I just described, but also a paper voucher.
Altogether, I think more than 95 percent of Taiwanese population have engaged in this Demos voucher, and it made September, October our highest in this entire decade in terms of retail and catering, and promoted a GDP growth.
When I see your response to the corona-19, it’s stunning. Compared to any other country, it’s very preventive and/or very successful. What do you think, what was the reason? I think it is not only mask application. There may be a lot of reasons. Please let me know around one to three.
I mean average, on the worldwide scale, Korea is also doing pretty well. The point here is that we had previous experience. In 2003, there was SARS 1.0, and Taiwan didn’t do well. We did quite badly, actually, the municipal and the central government saying very different things. We had to lock down an entire hospital. People were panic-buying N95 masks.
Everything that other countries are going through, we went through in 2003. In 2004, we designed a system as a, as you said, preventative measure to make sure the top three things. First, the Central Epidemic Command Center, a single source of communication, where everybody can dial in with a toll-free and with daily TV broadcast. This is very important.
Then the second thing is that we understood the idea that people will panic-buy masks. We ramped up the production this time from 2 million a day to 20 million a day and distributed quite well. This is the part that you already know about. The third part, which is less well-known, but I think equally important, is the idea of healthcare coverage through an IC card.
A single-payer healthcare that makes it actually cheaper for a person to go to a pharmacy to get a mask and then go to a clinic to get a diagnosis by a live doctor than going to a drive-through test, as you can see in Korea. In every other country, pretty much, testing is cheaper than getting a full treatment from a doctor. In Taiwan, going to a doctor is cheaper.
Because of that, people understand they will not incur any social or financial burden by reporting to a clinic with something that’s even just slightly like COVID. That encourages people to participate in contact tracing much more early on.
Now, considering all of the global situation, only one country – I mean Taiwan – there is no pandemic, I think. Even Korea now restarted. How do you think, why? What is the reason why there is no pandemic now? [laughs]
Instead of just an all-of-government approach, we use an all-of-society approach to make sure that, in any corner in any region in Taiwan, as long as more than three-quarters of people wear the mask and wash their hands properly, we have the R value under one.
The virus will not spread in the pockets even in the, for example, the nightlife district, with the host bar and hostess bars. They’re all also adopting the mask-wearing and/or face-shielding and also the real contact system. Even on the highest places of the most crowded places of worship, it is still observed by the major folk religions as well.
Basically, there is no part in society that doesn’t understand the idea of mask-wearing and hand sanitization. That globally, within Taiwan, reduced the R value instead of just in the places where there is police people, for example.
Once everyone is vaccinated, we need to work on counter-SARS 3.0 when the memory is still fresh, just as Taiwan worked on the counter-SARS 2.0 plan in 2004, with the memory of SARS 1.0 still fresh, because if you wait for a year, the memory is gone.
People forget these kind of things very quickly. Unless you put it into your institution, into your even constitutionally mandated acts, to have your parliament have a real discussion about the data norms, about the data collection, the data application and process, and so on, the privacy borders and things like that.
During a pandemic, if a data collection is new, people of course worry about the privacy and the cyber security parameters, but between the two pandemics, people can sit down and design something that works really well for the next pandemic. Soon as you are vaccinated as a society, start working on it while the memory is still fresh.
There are big barrier to China because, a lot of people, they said because they hide the most important timing around four weeks, after that, it spread all over the world. Do you think that China can help there? Also, currently, is there some cooperation between Taiwan and China with corona?
Not that I’m aware of. I think the only system that both us and the PRC, the People’s Republic of China regime, have worked in the same mechanism is that COVAX, the Gavi Vaccination Alliance, but other than that, I’m not aware of any kind of collaborations.
Of course it is very sad that in the beginning, when Dr. Li Wenliang literally saved Taiwanese people by having his whistle-blowing essentially reposted to the Taiwanese equivalent of Reddit, it saved everyone in Taiwan because, the very next day, we sent an email to WHO, but it didn’t save people in Wuhan. The Dr. Lin Wenliang’s message didn’t reach the Wuhan people.
The Wuhan people still run these very large gatherings, and that got them into a situation where they had to do a lockdown, and so it was very tragic. Had we had ministerial access to the WHO, then our email will reach not just the science people, but the actual ministers, and it may save more people. At least the world will gain 10 days by listening to Taiwan.
As it is, unless you are in a country where your top epidemiologist is your vice president, as in the case of Taiwan, having access to the top scientists in other country, and we do have some access to the science community, doesn’t translate to immediate action, and the world has lost 10 days.
That’s sad story. Audrey, how do you think that, when will this, the curse, will be caught, will be handled? Now, the vaccine, all of the country, they say that this next year, or a lot of prediction, 2022, early, or late even 2022, so when will this pandemic will be terminated…?
It’s really true. We, in Taiwan, can afford to wait a little bit until the COVAX has taken care of people who are in more pressing need, and wait until, say, Q2 to start our own COVAX. We are also producing our own vaccine and doing testing, and so we can wait. It’s OK to wait until the second quarter because, for us, it’s very gradual.
As long as the people who are in charge of the quarantining, the border control people, as long as they are vaccinated, we are probably very safe because, for everybody else, we don’t have a virus situation here. Because of that, we can afford to do a gradual vaccination while leaving these precious vaccines to the places and peoples who are more in dire need.
The optimistic estimate is that somewhere between Q2 and Q3, it will reach the part of population that maintains the immunity. On the other hand, this is assuming that there will be no release of SARS 2.1, or 2.2, or 3.0. If the virus mutates and 14 days becomes not enough, then everything is off.
About China again, because when the people think about Taiwan, they always think about China because China, politically and also other reasons, they are a big threat. China, recently, they said they don’t have the coronavirus infection. Do you believe that? Is it true?
I don’t have sufficient information, and this is what our initial doctors’ visits to Wuhan, that’s exactly what they said when they returned back to Taiwan as well, because we did visit Wuhan, sending two experts on, I think, the 12th of January. They simply said they do not have access to sufficient information, and this is what I will say now.
I think there are two parts in this. One is that, just as their provincial government may not have exactly the same data as their central government, their city-level government may not have the same level of information as their provincial government.
There were recent journalistic work that seems to show that it is indeed the case. It’s not that a certain city official is hiding something, necessarily. Maybe they don’t have the kind of information, either.
Of course we are waiting for a vaccine, but not in particularly a rush. There’s historically a high turnout for the seasonal flu vaccination, so it shows that people are eager to get vaccinated, but because there’s no local transmission for quite some time, we’re not in particular rush. Of course earlier would be better, but we can wait until March or April.
I think mostly it’s COVAX, but there is also separate deals with other vaccine makers in the works, and also of course, we’re developing our own vaccine. All sources are possible. It’s just a matter of time. Eventually, we will get sufficient amount of vaccines to reach herd immunity, at which point, which month of the next year, there is still some uncertainty, but we are patient.
We also worked together with the US on the cohack.tw, the counter-coronavirus hackathon, to develop, for example, the reporting tools to visually tell the story of local contact tracing for people to log their own activities, and generate reports for contact tracers to use without compromising their friends’ and families’ privacy and so on.
There’s many contributions of Taiwanese developers to the world. Many of them are actually not deployed domestically, simply because by the time they finish coding, it’s already June or July, and we don’t have a situation anymore.
OK, that’s great. I checked about your home page, and there, I found the radical transparency records. This is very impressive work. You are in some kind of digital activities prevailing the democracy and the diversity, but you know, a lot of people have a lot of concern that…like China is a good case.
When I say radical transparency, I mean transparency at the root, meaning that the state need to be transparent to the citizens about the kind of the work that the state does. However, we are not asking the citizens to be transparent to the state. That will be surveillance. It’s the direction of accountability, not the direction of authoritarian surveillance, a very important distinction.
For example, for this conversation, this interview, I need to be also accountable to the citizens. I will ask you after you publish, to publish this transcript as also after co-editing a copyright-free transcript to the Internet, or if you are OK to have your voice on YouTube, then we can also publish the video instead, your choice. I offer this because this is public service.
The people deserve an understanding of my day-to-day conversation, including with journalists and also with lobbyists. This contextualizes my work and make social innovation much more easy, because people can call me and say, “Hey, Minister, when you were talking to Michael, you made a mistake,” or things like that.
If I remember things wrong and so on, I get corrected, immediately sometime by YouTube commentators. This is, of course, a good thing to earn trustworthiness with the citizens. We are not asking the citizens to be transparent. Even if people are feeling delinquent – I think that’s the kind of words that you were alluding to – that’s their liberty.
I love to go to visit Taiwan. Taiwanese people deserve to have such a great idea. China is different from my perspective. From your ideas, what is the future of China in terms of the digital democracy? Can they achieve that?
I think that a lot of the work of me in the early 2000 involved working against adversarial network to the Great Firewall. At that point, the firewall wasn’t that great. [laughs] It was easy to bypass it.
I worked on many tools that enables secure communication between one endpoint within the firewall and another endpoint outside of the firewall, and poking about Freenet and other related technologies. As long as the PRC regime, the People’s Republic of China regime, did not disconnect from the Internet, if you touch something that’s the end.
That is to say, people who are interested in digital democracy and fostering a robust civil society, even though they can’t use that word publicly within the PRC – they have to say they are social entrepreneurs or something – they still crave the same kind of accountability, transparency, and participation ideas that we are making here.
What we are doing now is a broadly applicable idea. As long the PRC did not disconnect from the Internet, they still hold, through the free software movement, potential to affect the society in the PRC. You can look at how the Great Firewall cannot disconnect from GitHub, and then you have an inkling of the idea that I’m talking about.
About your story, I want to talk about that. You started as a minister, digital minister, from 35 years old. At first time, when you start your work in the government, what did you see? What did you fear? From the private to the public, very young minister, did you see this…?
I joined from the social sector, though. I was already retired, so not part of private. It’s like the social sector already, the Taiwan Occupy movement back in 2014, enabled a lot of people who are facilitators to the Occupy movement to work part-time as a reverse mentor, young reverse mentors, to cabinet members as early as end of 2014.
Yes. By participating in the Sunflower Movement, I personally participated in along with the g0v – G-0-V – community to ensure the same kind of rights, secure communication, to the people trapped within the parliament. Anyway, the point is that the cabinet already at the time worked with us, and we worked as reverse mentors.
I worked personally in the office as a part-time consultant in Minister Jaclyn Tsai’s office, which is physically the same office as my office now. In a sense, I’m already working for two years since 2014 to 2016 as an intern of sorts, and then getting promoted to full-time.
As you probably understand, Taiwan, like your country, has a seniority preference. When two people of the same rank is in the room, the senior one get to speak first. We have this automatic deference to the elderly. Because of that, it tend to be that it’s the elderly people mentoring young people.
However, after the Occupy, the parliament saw that it’s the young people who are digital natives that think about the situation in a way that transcends physical boundaries and even party boundaries, so the young people need to lead the way, and the old people need to follow. They designed the reverse mentor system and codified it as the Youth Consulting Group of the cabinet.
Later on, I would take over that and redesign as the cabinet-level Youth Advisory Council. Those council members are ratified by a regulation that says they are essentially leading the direction for the ministry that nominated them.
Mm-hmm, but you have to put it in writing, in institutions, preferably in something that’s ratified by the premier, the head of cabinet, or the president. The reverse mentor system currently in the cabinet is a campaign promise of Dr. Tsai Ing-wen on her first term as president. We delivered on her promise, which is why we can translate it into writing.
My pronouns are whatever. I don’t have a preference. I don’t have this idea in my mind that somehow, half of population is different from me. I went through two puberties. No matter what you identify as, chances are that I can empathize with you. I’m a part of this homo sapiens, the human being, the humanity community, but I don’t really care about the pronoun that you use.
Trust the citizens more. Make sure that the social innovations are recognized and amplified. Eventually, the citizens will trust back. Even if you trust the citizens and they don’t trust back, chances are that they will have some really good ideas. Listen to those ideas and adapt quickly.