Digital Minister

Audrey Tang is young, a former hacker and digital minister of Taiwan. It is her task to protect her country from Chinese disinformation – and make it resilient against an attack

prepare it for an invasion jung, eine ehemalige Hackerin und Digitalministerin des Inselstaats. Sie soll ihr Land vor chinesischer Desinformation schützen –
und resilient gegen einen Angriffskrieg

An evening event in Taipei, the German Minister of Education is there, the guests are whispering, when suddenly a projection of Audrey Tang appears on a screen. The Taiwanese woman speaks her words of welcome softly, breathes „Freedom and Prosperity“ as a farewell, then stretches her palm towards the audience and spreads her middle and ring fingers: the Vulcan salute from Star Trek – from a female minister. Audrey Tang is the Digital Minister of Taiwan, an island that is officially recognised as a state by only twelve countries and the Holy See, and which the Chinese Communist Party is threatening to take over. Almost every day, Chinese fighter jets invade the Taiwanese air defence zone, Chinese government and party organisations spout conspiracy theories and fake news, which are spread by content farms, nationalist bloggers, inclined influencers and the like. nationalist bloggers, inclined influencers and willing YouTubers. A gigantic amount of disinformation that serves the goal of steering Taiwan’s domestic politics according to China’s will. Especially the presidential election next January. Beijing is fuelling the hybrid threat through cyberattacks. And Tang is Taiwan’s response to this.

On a day in April, the minister is sitting in the upholstered corner of her office, laptop on her lap. Tang, long hair, T-shirt and jacket, describes herself as „post-gender“. You are welcome to call her „he“ or „she“, or „whatever“. The further China slides into dictatorship under Xi Jinping, repressing Uyghurs and Tibetans, depriving Hong Kongers of their rights, arresting lawyers and entrepreneurs, the more Taiwan presents itself as the other China: democratic, democratic, democratic. Taiwan presents itself as the other China: democratic, diverse, open. The first country in Asia to allow homosexuals to marry. There is more to this than the system issue. The Taiwanese government knows that its country appears worthy of protection by democratic states: because of its geostrategic location, because of the TSMC group, which supplies the world with around 90 per cent of the most modern semiconductors, and because it is a democracy. However, no one in President Tsai Ing-wen’s cabinet exudes more democratic glamour than the excellent English speaker Audrey Tang.

Risk, says Tang, is nothing new to her. She was four years old and still a boy called Tsung-han when she heard what the doctor told her parents, two liberal journalists: because of a heart defect, their son had a 50 per cent chance of living to see the day when he was old enough to undergo the saving operation. „Until I was twelve, I lived in the knowledge that I wouldn’t live to see the morning. That moulded my character.“ Maybe that’s why she moves through life at such a fast pace. At the age of eight, Tang taught herself programming, without a computer, just a piece of paper and a pen. „It was like playing a musical instrument,“ she says. When she was eleven years old, the family family moved to Saarbrücken for a year, where her father wrote his doctoral thesis on the Chinese Tiananmen protest in 1989. „He interviews the exiles in our living room. The conversations often centred on computers and the possibility of networking.“ The internet becomes Tang’s school. There she communicates with experts from all over the world. „On the internet, nobody can see that you’re only twelve.“ Tang drops out of school at 14. „I told the headmistress that I wanted to concentrate on my online research. She replied: Then you don’t have to come any more. She offered to forge the school reports for me.“

15 years: Tang founds an IT company with friends. She later became a consultant for Apple and Oxford University Press in Silicon Valley. 32 years: Tang has earned so much money that she declares her intention to retire. However, this does not materialise because shortly afterwards, in 2014, students protest against the government in her home country. President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party favours close ties with the People’s Republic and is striving for a comprehensive services agreement. The students fear a creeping takeover. The activists of the so-called Sunflower Movement occupy parliament for 24 days. „Democracy needs me,“ explains Tang and hurries to Taipei. Together with her comrades-in-arms from the hacker collective g0v, she supports the students so that they can stream their protest live from parliament. In the end, they win and the agreement is overturned. In 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party comes to power, which favours greater distance from China.

The new president Tsai Ing-wen makes Tang the country’s first female digital minister in 2016. She is 35 and the youngest in the cabinet, initially a minister without a ministry, a free-floating radical. Tang combines hackerism, technology and politics. She is committed to the digital reinvention of democracy and is using her knowledge to connect the population, healthcare system and government during the pandemic, for example. Thanks to Tang, people knew how many masks were available in which pharmacy. Since last August, she has had her own ministry, the Ministry of Digital Affairs, or moda for short, which is originally intended to focus on digital transformation.

Six months six months earlier, Putin’s army had invaded Ukraine. „In the first few days I stayed up all night helping to update the Kyiv Independent and other websites so that Russian propaganda didn’t get the upper hand,“ she says in her office. It was about providing Ukrainians with faster internet, for example. It was at this moment that she and the government realised that they would also focus on digital resilience: the resilience of the digital infrastructure in the event of an attack. What is currently happening in Ukraine could also happen in Taiwan, says Tang. Since then, she has been preparing for an emergency, should Beijing succeed in cutting all undersea cables, for example. „Domestic communications will be down. The computer centres must be located in Taiwan, and the digital infrastructure must be maintained by partners here.“ To ensure contact with the rest of the world, Taiwan is installing more than 700 satellite receivers, some at fixed locations, others on vehicles. Tang is cooperating with several providers, „we have learnt a lot from the Ukrainian experience“. For example, that one should not expose oneself to the whims of a monopolist. The Ukrainian military, which has relied on tech billionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service since the start of the war, had to learn this lesson. Tang says she is preparing for massive cyberattacks in which „the attacker can put 100 times more resources into an attack than we can into defence“. When Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan in August 2022, the screens of the 7-Eleven supermarket chain read: „Warmonger Pelosi, get out of Taiwan!“ Attacks on Taiwanese government websites reached a new record. Beijing denies that it is responsible.

The Swedish research institute V Dem has measured that Taiwan is the country most exposed to disinformation campaigns by another state. Chinese party and government organisations are extremely sophisticated in this respect. Conspiracy theories that sow doubt about the support of the USA and are intended to demoralise the Taiwanese population are currently popular. In the fight against this, Taiwan is relying primarily on civil society. „We are are working together with several organisations. If a user discovers false information, they can flag it as spam and share it with the researchers.“ They investigate the message, check its veracity and share their findings with all users. Tang calls this „collective intelligence“.

To understand this principle, which is central to Tang’s work and her understanding of democracy, it helps to leave the minister for a moment and immerse yourself in the world she comes from: the realm of civic hackers. Every two months, the computer science department of Academia Sinica University in Taipei hosts a hackathon organised by g0v, the collective that once supported the Sunflower Movement. A lecture theatre with squeaky green chairs where around 100 young people with laptops have taken their seats. Computer scientists and mathematicians, lawyers and AI experts, data analysts, a doctor, a philosopher, experts in robotics and machine learning. A woman is looking for helpers for a project that wants to visualise how candidates for parliament feel about LGBTQ rights. A man asks for helpers for a medical conference. conference. „We’re looking for people who know about medicine and finance.“ A law student worries about data protection after a huge leak. Everyone present has come to put their expertise at the service of the general public, to work free of charge for democracy and transparency. and transparency.

CL Kao, who co-founded g0v and says he has known Tang for more than 20 years, is sitting in the crowd. Although the minister no longer has time for hackathons, the hackers can still reach her via the shared Slack channel. The movement began in 2012, explains Kao recounts, when he was annoyed by a government advert on television at the time. It said that citizens should not worry about how politicians spend their money, but should trust them. „I found that scandalous. “ He called a hackathon, fellow campaigners obtained the publicly accessible data and visualised how the government was using taxpayers‘ money. Later, they focused on election campaign donations, says Kao: „More than 10,000 hackers took part.“ Most of the information could be obtained directly from the government, but it was often buried in the filing cabinets of government offices or written in incomprehensible official Chinese. „It’s about how to make it accessible to everyone.“ Techies like him are predestined for this task. „But these people are traditionally apolitical. They earn good money and hardly anyone believed that they would join a movement. But now they identify with it. They can respond to any situation here, says Kao. „Our aim is to create a community.“ According to the hackers at g0v, politics often suffers from an information problem. Citizens know too little about the concerns of the government, and governments know too little about the will of the citizens.

Minister Audrey Tang has learnt this from her time at g0v. She is trying to involve citizens with digital surveys. „Democracies use digital technologies to make the state transparent for people, autocracies to make people transparent for the state,“ says Tang. „We need credible, neutral institutions that don’t have to take into account the wishes of advertisers, shareholders or ministers,“ she explains in her ministerial office. She is convinced that social infrastructure must be run by civil society. Corporations have an interest in „keeping users dependent so that advertisers can place targeted adverts“. People then get the feeling that democracy is not working, but they are just in the wrong place: on social media, which Tang calls „antisocial“. media, which Tang calls „anti-social“ because people become more isolated and polarised. It is, says Tang and laughs, „like holding a town hall meeting in a very loud nightclub where alcohol is served all the time“. Practising democracy, says Tang, is the best immunisation against the propaganda of autocrats. Unlike elsewhere, corona has not led to democracy fatigue in her home country. This is due to good pandemic management and the fact that the Taiwanese have the alternative of China right in front of them. But also a little because of Audrey Tang.

Published by DER SPIEGEL on 01/07/2023

translated by deepl