China’s Sputnik Moment?
How Washington Boosted Beijing’s Quest for Tech Dominance
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.
Digital Minister Audrey Tang then proceeded to work closely with entrepreneurs and g0v hacktivists in a digital chatroom to rapidly produce a range of maps and applications. These tools showed where masks were available, but they did more than that. Citizens were able to reallocate rations through intertemporal trades and donations to those who most needed them, which helped prevent the rise of a black market. As often happens in the world of hacking, the initial deployment crashed after being overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of queries in the first hours of operation, but the effort was not wasted. The broad interest stimulated the government to provide the necessary computational resources and bandwidth to allow a version of this service that could serve the whole population. The result has not just facilitated a more effective distribution of masks but also reduced panic and generated widespread, and justified, pride.
Bottom-up information sharing, public-private partnerships, “hacktivism,” and participatory collective action have been central to the country’s success.
A second example is a platform that helps citizens work together to reduce exposure to the virus. The work on this platform (which again grew out of a collaboration between a group of entrepreneurs, the digital ministry, and the g0v movement) was motivated in part by the arrival of passengers from a cruise ship with a high rate of infection. Individuals used the platform to share reports, voluntarily and in real time, about symptoms using a variety of media (such as a call-in line and smartphones); this information was quickly verified and collated. The result was then combined with more community-created apps that allowed users to download their smartphone location history to determine if they may have been exposed. It was a common-sense design that encouraged proactive behavior. Users who worried about exposure limited their subsequent interactions to protect others.
The guiding principle was not top-down control but mutual respect and cooperation. Privacy was carefully protected, and the movements of an individual were not visible to others. This approach supported an astonishing degree of social coordination, which reduced transmission. And despite being an open, participatory system, the platform did not spur the spread of disinformation or panic. By ensuring reported histories of movement corresponded to plausible patterns, without recording their details, trolls were excluded, thereby avoiding the dysfunctions that degrade commercial social media in times of crisis. The availability of this information dramatically reduced the economic burden of achieving containment by avoiding uniform and extreme social-distancing policies. Instead, citizens were able to avoid or disinfect compromised locations; those who had visited them could self-quarantine.
These are only two examples. Dozens of community-created apps helped reduce the intensity of government-enforced interventions and at the same time supported the world’s best response to the pandemic. They allowed Taiwan to avoid the lack of coordination and the misallocation of supplies and tests that have characterized the U.S. and European responses, as well as the secretive, hierarchical approach of centralized Chinese planning. By making the health-crisis response extremely transparent—Digital Minister Tang livestreams all her meetings—Taiwan built public confidence. By communicating challenges faced by the government, rather than projecting an aura of invincibility, it encouraged a range of decentralized actors to contribute to solutions and build on official information. And by tightly targeting responses to locations and types of activities that posed a threat, made visible by data from the community, it was able to act early without paralyzing economic activity, causing political division, or stoking fear.
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.
In theory, China and the United States—“AI superpowers,” as the Taiwanese-born industrial maven Kai-Fu Lee has put it—ought to have better capacity to deal with complex, rapidly evolving problems, given that they have the biggest computers running the most advanced artificial intelligence programs. Yet tiny Taiwan did better than either of them by emphasizing the social inputs to coordination instead of machine learning alone.
It is possible that the AI prowess of China and the United States in fact stood in their way. Both have a technocratic, top-down vision of the future of AI, in which a small digital elite, concentrated in a few tech hubs and largely separated from the concerns of the rest of the population, produces tools meant to be used by the rest of the population. While the locus of this elite is the Communist Party in one case and West Coast tech hubs in the other, the logic is similar.
The Taiwanese response was fast, precise, and democratic.
One problem with technocracies of this sort is that although they are good at crunching and propagating data, they tend to be myopic when it comes to context and motivation. Tech elites in both China and the United States were at first slow to perceive the importance of events in a somewhat removed field of knowledge—medicine. Even once the issue was on their radar screens, the narrowness of the elites led to an initial blindness to the world beyond their immediate experience.
The most striking example was the Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, one of the first to perceive the danger of the virus, who was reprimanded by the police and then, after he died, became a national martyr. The shortsightedness of the elites is also evident in the United States, in the botched rollout of the COVID-19 triage app by Alphabet’s Verily: its capabilities were initially oversold, it is distrusted by many as a data grab, and it turns out to cover only the Bay Area.
In contrast, the Taiwanese response, based on an ethos of broad digital participation and community-driven tool development, was fast, precise, and democratic. By spreading participation in digital development broadly through society, Taiwan avoided both technocracy and technophobia, maintaining trust and the two-way flow of information in the face of a crisis.
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.