Audrey Tang will soon become Taiwan’s youngest Cabinet minister when she starts as minister without portfolio on Oct. 1 to lead open government initiatives. Describing herself as a “connector,” she is uniquely qualified to play this role. Here’s her story.
Audrey Tang has achieved more by the age of 35 than most people achieve in their lifetimes. She founded her own company when she was 16 and “retired” at 33 only to become more involved in public welfare projects. She shuttles freely between the physical and virtual worlds, pulling together resources and building communication platforms.
Tang’s lack of degrees belies her intelligence and knowledge. Though her formal education went only as far as junior high school, she was already teaching herself computer programming at the age of eight. Her father Tang Kuang-hua and mother Lee Ya-ching worked as reporters, but Lee quit her job to home teach her child prodigy and launch an experimental education movement in Taiwan focused on self-learning.
Renowned for her hacking skills and already considered legendary in the internet community, Tang works as a consultant for consumer electronics giant Apple, charging “one bitcoin” an hour for her services.
At the age of 24, Tang underwent gender reassignment surgery, and changed her name from Autrijus Tang (唐宗漢) to Audrey Tang (唐鳳), because “I was very sure I was a woman.” It’s a part of who she is, but when her appointment as minister without portfolio was announced, it seemed a far less important piece of the puzzle than one might expect in Taiwan’s freewheeling media environment.
What stood out more was the potential of what she could contribute.
Tang describes herself as a citizen of the world, a formulation that doesn’t include “Taiwan.” But she has worked to deepen Taiwan’s democracy through efforts to develop or introduce internet technologies in public welfare projects. Every few months, she’s invested overseas to discuss Taiwan’s democratic experiments and achievements in recent years.
If one were to use just one title to describe Tang’s position in society at different stages of her life, she was a “genius” as a child, an “internet entrepreneur” as a teenager, and a “connector” today, linking public agencies with civic movements, technology with democracy, and Taiwan with the world.
“I’m a connector, a contact person,” she says, explaining the role this way: “On the left there is a community. On the right, there is a community. The two sides either don’t know each other or there may even be ill will between the two. A connector translates what the left side is doing into language the right side can understand and translates what the right side is doing into language the left side can understand, then introduces them to each other. After that, I’m off to somewhere else.”
A successful example of that is vTaiwan.tw, an online platform for discussing laws and regulations related to the virtual world and ways they can be improved.
Tang and her friends who developed “g0v.tw” get together once every even-numbered month for a hackathon and in every odd-numbered month for smaller “MoeDict” (Ministry of Education “dictionary”) sessions, matching skilled technicians with public needs. Attendance ranges from dozens of people to 200 to 300, and roughly a dozen proposals are submitted every time seeking the hackers’ assistance.
Former Minister without Portfolio Jaclyn Tsai once attended a hackathon to submit a proposal, and Tang agreed to “jump in,” leading to the creation of vTaiwan.
Before the government finalizes statutes and regulations touching on the internet world, they are now posted on a vTaiwan interactive interface using Pol.is open source code to gather opinions. Citizens and people with vested interests in the laws can discuss the proposals and give feedback, which the government gradually consolidates and incorporates into a final bill that is drafted once a consensus is reached.
The amendments to the “Company Act” passed in 2015 by Taiwan’s legislative body, the Legislative Yuan, were the result of four and a half months of discussion on the vTaiwan site.
“Policies established through the cooperation of public and private organizations are generally better and longer lasting, and they can reduce the attrition of government officials,” Tang says.
Another government official who has sought out Tang’s help is former National Academy for Educational Research Ko Hwa-wei. When Ko still headed the academy, she attended one of the “MoeDict” forums hosted by Tang and invited her to join the curriculum development committee for the country’s new 12-year education program.
Tang agreed, broadcasting the committee’s hearings live online and producing transcripts tens of thousands of characters long. Because of those efforts, the curriculum review and approval process was open and transparent, reducing potential controversy.
vTaiwan has helped Taiwan become a global leader in using internet technology to promote democracy, and its exploits have gained international attention. Tang has been invited overseas several times to share her experience, offering ideas for example on France’s development of a “Digital Republic” bill. Taking a page from the vTaiwan playbook, the bill was shaped by considerable online consultation before being adopted by France’s National Assembly in January.
A Willingness to Share
The 1980s and ’90s, when Tang was growing up and maturing, were a time when the democracy and internet waves had a major impact on Taiwan. But Tang was studying science and computers and also learning ancient Greek philosophy, including Plato’s “Dialogues,” at home, far removed from the country’s political and social turbulence. After she “retired,” Tang entered the two fields and used her expertise in internet technology to prove that rational dialogue was possible in a democratic society and internet world.
Tang’s ability to help deepen democracy by getting internet communities to participate in public affairs stemmed from her willingness to share, an essential trait for anybody hoping to be a “connector.”
“I can speak a pi number of languages – Chinese, English and a little Taiwanese, French, and German. Altogether that about adds up to π [3.14159],” Tang says.
Those skills have played out in the “MoeDict” meetings, which are held primarily to help the government develop ways to create symbols to computerize Taiwanese (Hokkien) and other languages and dialects spoken in Taiwan.
At the group’s 15th matchmaking meeting, Tang was bent over her iPad Pro demonstrating a Taiwanese translation interface, and she and other attendees brainstormed ideas to develop the world’s first Amis language dictionary and a method for entering Taiwanese into computers.
Sitting by Tang’s side was Wikimedia Taiwan board director Liang-chih Shang Kuan, who was attending a “MoeDict” meeting for a second time to seek out the help of masters.
“Audrey Tang is really good and super willing to share,” Shang Kuan says.
Adds designer Johnason Lo, who worked with Tang in the past on a public welfare media platform: “She’s a real goddess, full of selfless devotion. Give her a problem and an answer will be given.”
When Tang was 12, she moved into the internet world, and “being open” has become her core belief. She explained the idea with an analogy. “The most basic idea in the movie ‘The Grandmaster’ was that if the master held back a move from others, then when the master passed away, the move would die with him,”
Tang describes herself as a “channel,” one that no matter what question it is answering or problem it is solving has thousands of years of civilization behind it. “I’m just a ‘hollow’ channel. As people dealing in knowledge, we should put ourselves in this kind of position.”
As more use is being made of this 1.8-meter tall “channel,” who always has a computer and virtual reality gear on hand, her intangible internet tools are changing tangible political realities, and her tangible global sharing is strengthening Taiwan’s intangible influence.
At the age of 35, Tang is set to continue on her internet road, one that now will put her in the self-described position of “digital minister,” channeling knowledge and the public interest to join together in making government better.
Copyright © 2016 Commonwealth Magazine All Rights Reserved
Interview & Written by Fu-yuan Hsiao
Translated by Luke Sabatier