Ready for my question?

市長給問嗎 (Ready for my question, Mr. Mayor?) introduced by Watchout during the mayoral election in 2014. Credit: Watchout

給問嗎 or 給問 (gěi wèn mā, gěiwèn, [are you] receptive to enquiry?) has become a popular format of civic participation in politics and public affairs. After the first instance of gěiwèn, 市長給問嗎 (Ready for my question, Mr. Mayor?, a mayoral gěiwèn), conceived by Watchout in July 2014, this term is now part of the lexicon among the political-minded people.

Made in the digital commons, the term gěiwèn is assimilating into the professional realms, into the minds of journalists, opinion leaders, and researchers. This article is a short history of gěiwèn, in the context of an ongoing socio-political transformation and nation-building of Taiwan.

In a typical gěiwèn project, netizens raise their questions on a web platform to candidates of a certain election, have it be mayoral or presidential. Netizens also collectively vote on all the questions. The poll administrator will use a pre-determined threshold to decide which questions are with enough votes to be brought to the candidates. The candidates, who participates voluntarily, then answer the questions.

A comparison between traditional ways of interacting with candidates, and the ways of gěiwèn. Credit: Watchout

As the first experiment of its kind, the mayoral gěiwèn of 2014 included a guide for how to compose clear, unambiguous questions with sufficient contextual information. The web platform went public in July of 2014. Before the election day in November, it had accumulated 360K visits, 700 proposed questions, 58K votes, and 33 questions with enough votes. One of the question, with 800 votes, gained much public notice at the time.

How would the city government under your leadership respond to a zombie outbreak?

That question was answered by 馮光遠 alone, a satirical writer, veteran journalist, and a non-partisan candidate. 32 out of the 33 questions were answered by at least one candidate. Questions regarding cryptocurrency, disposable plastic utensil, and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement were answered by none of the participating candidates.

The 2014 mayoral election was the first to elect a non-partisan Mayor of Taipei City. In Taiwan’s national politics, Taipei City’s Mayor is considered a critical position because Taipei is the capital and the home to all major political and socio-economic functions of the nation.

Ptt, Taiwan’s largest online community based on the Bulletin Board System technology, hosted its own gěiwèn in September of 2014, titled 鄉民有約 (Date night with netizens). It was a series of live-streaming in-person interview with the three mayoral candidates. The questions were gathered and selected by Ptt according to the result of 58,587 votes. There were at most 45,142 people watching the live-stream online at the same time.

Recording of one of the interviews hosted by Ptt with then non-partisan candidate, now Mayor of Taipei Ke Wen-je.

In September, Watchout launched a crowdfunding campaign on FlyingV, to crowdfund a gěiwèn for the the mayoral election of Taichung, central Taiwan’s largest city. It raised NT$788,305 in one month (approximately US$25,000) and the project launched successfully.

Three days before election day in 2014, former President and former Mayor of Taipei 李登輝 (Lee Teng-hui), also agreed to, at age 92, a live-streaming gěiwèn, hosted by Watchout.

An illustration of former President Lee and 阿草, representing character of Watchout. Credit: Watchout

During his gěiwèn, Lee’s answers to netizens questions touched on Taiwan’s history of social activism, Taiwan’s new, forming identity, relation with China, income and wealth inequality, housing justice, and transitional justice. His answers were elaborate and detailed. They felt personal and sincere. Lee also spoke almost entirely in Taiwanese, an act and a manifesto out of his identity as a Taiwanese.

Aside from answering questions, Lee also proposed three questions back to the viewers to ask themselves, referring them as “the younger generation”.

Who am I? What character does Taiwan need in its leader? What is your vision for the future development of our country?

Recording of the event can be found here. A transcript of the live-stream, collaboratively edited by 49 people, can be found here.

Outside of election season, the name and format of gěiwèn are used in other situations in attempt to alleviate information asymmetry and promote direct dialog between concerned citizens — the one with less information — and the opinion-leaders, researchers, activists, or government officials — the one with more information.

Throughout late 2014 and early 2015, a group of netizens organized 給鄉民問嗎 (Ready for a netizen’s question?), a series of 19 live-streaming interviews with prominent public figures in activism, politics and technology. The following links are, respectively, the question collection post on Ptt for episode #14 with technologist 翟本喬 (Ben Jai), and the transcript of episode #19 with 徐自強 (Xu, Zi-qiang), who have been imprisoned on a charge of murder for 20 years. He never gave up in the fight for his innocence and freedom.

December 2015, at the passing of National Land Use Planning Act, Taiwan Environmental Information Center hosted a series of gěiwèn events titled 國土法給問嗎 (Ready for a question, National Land Use Planning Act?) with environmental lawyer and long-term advocate of the bill, now Deputy Director of the Environmental Protection Agency 詹順貴 (Zhan, Shun-gui), Director Tsai of the Planning Division of the Construction and Planning Agency of the Ministry of the Interior (talking about hierarchy), professor 戴秀雄 (Dai, Xiu-xiong) at the Department of Land Economics of NCCU, and researcher 潘正正 (Pan, Zheng-zheng) at Citizen of the Earth, Taiwan.

The rise of gěiwèn was propelled by the political atmosphere that demanded change. The death of 洪仲丘 (Hung Chung-chiu) in July 2013, the 服貿 (fúmào, Taiwan-China Service Trade Agreement) controversy and the Sunflower Movement in early 2014 was only two major uprisings among countless other protests across the island against abusive labor condition, forceful lang acquisition, corrupt urban renewal, east coastline privatization, and much more. Taiwanese people, especially the younger generation, are demanding a new way of conducting politics. A new way with less walls and boundaries. A new way that is native to their digital upbringing.

In the atmosphere of change, transparency, a sense of directness and openness, seems to be a “middle ground” that both politicians and citizens, conservatives and progressives, activists and civic technologists, can endorse. Transparency seems to have become the one term to unite us all. The one trend to which almost no one would dare to oppose.

It is still unknown that if transparency is the fix for representative democracy. While some are devoted to develop a clear mechanism of what transparency actually entails and transform how different levels of government work with honest methodology, for some, transparency is merely a slogan.

A bad practice of transparency does not solve the problem of dysfunctional government. It creates meaningless work for the government employees, usually lower ranking ones, and much more work for the citizens. For traditional politicians, claiming to be transparent can be a way of whitewashing themselves to appear to be progressive. Government agencies can release data in arbitrary format to achieve their quantitative “transparency performance indicator”. Now the citizens have to do all the work if we want to make sense of these data.

A Whac-A-Mole game titled “Busy Citizen”, fighting many injustices. Credit: nagee

The expression 公民好忙 ([We] the citizen [are] so busy), popular among the politically-minded, expresses the predicament where we the citizens are not only responsible for our own survival, but also the proper functioning of our government. When work is actually wage slavery and dictates time and the definition of success, a solution to this problem under neoliberalism seems improbable.

Carrying on this trend of transparency, Watchout, teaming up with Google and Apple Daily, produced a Presidential gěiwèn for the 2016 election. All of the four teams of candidates from the three major parties have agreed to participate in this forum.

Then ruling party KMT revoked candidacy from 洪秀柱, who won the primary unopposed, and nominated 朱立倫, then party chairperson and mayor of New Taipei City, who did not participate in the primary, to run for the presidency.
A promotional video for Presedential gěiwèn 2016. Candidate and chairman of People First Party Mr Soong Chu-yu is expressing his desire to “give” opportunities for questions from the public.

Five questions were selected randomly from the questions with the most votes, then sent to the campaigns, allowing preparation before the live, televised debates. This was the fourth Presidential Debate since the first direct presidential election in 1996, and the first one to include questions from individual citizens, replacing questions from major media outlets and interest groups in past debates.

After the first debate between the vice presidential candidates, questions raised were under scrutiny from the candidates, the media, and researchers that they were ambiguous, having questionable premise or logic, and generally “less professional” than the questions traditionally from the media outlets. Responding to the criticism, all participating parties decided to raise the threshold of minimum vote from 1,000 to 1,100, also to allow “retouching” of the questions by the hosts before the live debates “while retain original meaning”.

After KMT lost both the presidency and majority in Legislative Yuan (Congress of Taiwan) in the 2016 election, younger members of the party formed Grassroots Alliance in hope to reform the party. They hosted a gěiwèn during re-election of party’s chairperson. Three out of the four candidates participated the event, while the then front-runner and now chairperson of KMT 洪秀柱 declined to attend. The entire recording of the event can be found here.

April of 2016, Chairperson of Council of Agriculture 曹啟鴻 suggested that government may permit American pork import as part of the exchange to join the TPP. In June, Civil Media published an article to criticize this possible policy position. gěiwèn was part of the article’s title, expressing the author’s desire to interrogate the chairperson. The term gěiwèn has evolved from a specific form of civic enquiry, to a general expression used to express the urge to enquire.

In the inaugural address of the new Speaker of the Legislative Yuan 蘇嘉全 (Su Jia-chyuan) of DPP, he delineated a new vision for the legislature — to be for the people, open, and professional.

Preceding Su, 王金平 (Wang Jin-pyng) of KMT has been the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan for 17 consecutive years.

With support from the legislature’s Department of Information and the Speaker, Congressthon, was hosted inside the conference hall of Taiwan’s national legislature at the end of August of 2016.

Congress + hackathon → Congressthon

In the second day of this two-Saturday event, four of the current members of the Legislative Yuan participated as subject of enquiry in a 2.5-hour session titled 立委給問嗎 (Ready for my question, Legislator?).

Conceptualized by members of Watchout, this gěiwèn is a gamification of the election process and the Congressional interpellation process. In the game, 100+ participants go through a two-tier election, electing their “district” and “regional” representatives to bring their concerns and questions to the “hall of democracy”. After 30 minutes, four regional representatives then would take turn to summon the (actual) legislators to the left side of the hall to be questioned.

First stage of group deliberation (with facilitator) to come to a common theme and questions for the final interpellation. Credit: Watchout
Legislators responding to questions from hackathon participants. Credit: Watchout
Highlights of 立委給問嗎, “a social experiment modeling representative democracy”. Credit: Watchout
Highlights of the interpellation and interviews of both the legislators and the participants. Credit: Watchout

Video recording of the discussions can be found here. A complete recording of the interpellation is here.

If you speak or know of Taiwan’s National Language or Taiwanese [*], it’s not difficult to spot the difference in terms of formality between a name like gěiwèn and their underlying discourse — digital governance, civic deliberation, congressional civic oversight, and so on. Looking at the flourishing landscape of Taiwanese civic tech, the name of many projects seem out-of-place, lacking formality, elegance, or seriousness, and they are exactly that by design (through a collaborative process).

[*] A short article here about “the Taiwanese language”.

Taking inspiration from “folk language” when naming a project is a common strategy in Taiwan’s booming civic tech scene today. A colloquial and funny name brings politics and technology — two subjects foreign to many Taiwanese people — closer to people’s daily lives. Puns, phonetic mix-ups, pop culture, or netizen culture references. These wordplays, oftentimes paired with cute imagery, have the power to package a serious (boring) concept into a funny, relatable catchphrase. If done well, this reduces threshold of understanding and ease of communication is beneficial for spreading the idea and attract wider interest, more contributors, and awareness.

One of the most well-received civic tech project in the recent years is 萌典 (moedict). Conceptualized by g0v contributors, the name ‘萌’ came from moe, which is simultaneously the abbreviation of the Ministry of Education, from where a major source of the open data used by the project, and a phrase expressing strong affection in Japanese (萌え), usually used in the context of anime or manga.

Illustrations by g0v (gov-zero) contributors for moedict are very moe. Source: here, here, and here.

The name of gěiwèn, 給問嗎, is formed from a sentence structure for asking someone, in a colloquial way, if they are open to receive an action of some kind. It is spoken in National Language, but the passive verb ‘給’, which gave the expression its distinctive style, is an adaptation from Taiwanese. Some will say that this is “not proper Chinese” in the sense that middle school teacher will make you rewrite this sentence in your school essay.

Following the same sentence structure, 政見給窺嗎 ([are you] receptive for showing your policy proposals [to me]?), produced by around the same time as the first gěiwèn, is a polling game that matches voter and mayoral candidates. The name of this project is phonetically identical to the phrase 給虧嗎 (gěi kuī mā, [are you] receptive for pursuing and sexual advances [from me]?), which is used by some Taiwanese men in a local, heterosexual context when approaching woman with a patriarchal, diminishing tone.

While colloquialism generally does good for the project, this particular naming strategy (給虧嗎 or gěiwèn) could do harm.

  1. This perpetuates patriarchy.
  2. This creates a false sense of power in the minds of the public.

The appropriation of this expression (from men-women relations to open governance) is making patriarchy funny (which it is definitely not). Despite the very likely lack of intension, this is pointing to a lack of awareness in a predominately male community of engineers and technologists.

Furthermore, this analogy of men talking down and objectifying women and members of the public questioning politicians could create a false sense of power/dominance and a false impression that politicians are required to answer our questions (which they are sadly not) and ignore the subtlety of making our democracy more democratic.

Is transparency equality and accountability? Or is it propaganda?

During Congressthon’s game of gěiwèn, one can really experience, being physically inside the assembly hall, the difference between an expert speaker (politician?), and a regular person. While some participants were experienced, the legislators were still better skilled to be able to “turn the table around”. They capture the atmosphere, the mood of the crowd, they engineer their sentences with rhetoric, ambiguity, and generality with intuition, you’re not entirely sure if they are sincere or sinister.

Requirements of a gěiwèn seems to be as follows:

  1. Assemble — To have citizens and representatives (or government officials) to voluntarily assemble in the same physical or virtual space.
  2. Ask — To have citizens ask questions, from their own intelligence, that are understandable, unambiguous, supported by facts, and “smart”.
  3. Answer — To have representatives respond and “give up” information voluntarily that is relevant to the question raised and in turn alleviate asymmetry of information.
  4. Authenticate—To insure communication between parties is always authentic and unhindered, not mis-represented.

A gěiwèn is to hold those who have power under scrutiny. It is to exercise the right of knowing, to participate in the political process .It is not an effective gěiwèn if any of these requirements are under-satisfied.

An ineffective gěiwèn is not only non-transparency, but a performance of transparency which is dangerous and regressive.

To breakdown how these requirements can be achieved, we have to look at the players of a gěiwèn. There are…

  1. 👥 The public,
  2. 👮 The officials, and
  3. 👷 The organizer & facilitator.

For a gěiwèn to achieve each requirement, we need to know what motivation or anti-motivation people at different positions would have.

㍙、 Novelty

  • Celebrity, rising star in politics, newly-elected legislator.
  • People I’m curious about, places I haven’t been to, ways of doing things I haven’t tried.

㍚、 Relevance

  • Issues I know about, issues I care about, issues my friends care about like open government or democracy.
  • Meeting people, those of similar interest, those who might be my ally, and those who might be my adversary.
  • Meeting & questioning 👮 from my (👥’s) district.

㍛、 Exposure

  • A good opportunity for one to express and showcase oneself to one’s target audience.
  • For 👥, it might be those of their private interest. One might be looking to gain authority in relevant subjects. One might be running for office.
  • For 👮, it might be their constituencies.
  • For 👷, it might be 👥.

㍜、 Cost

  • For 👥, 👮, and 👷, time and energy spent to prepare, travel, and attend.
  • For 👷, the cost of setting the stage can be very high since they are mobilizing to help achieve all the requirements for an effective gěiwèn.

㍝、 Risk

  • For 👮, losing face, not able to answer or get out of questions. Getting assassinated?
  • For 👷, not enough attendance from either 👥 or 👮. Not able to moderate the conversation between 👥 and 👮.
  • For 👥, there is none. We are a country with freedom of speech.

A more fundamental challenge of the gěiwèn format is its inherent centralized structure.

The marketing (the heightening and gathering of public interest) of a gěiwèn event is the easiest when the subject of the event is a famous person.

This perpetuates heroism that focuses on an individual and their quality to be the savior, the chosen one. While it does require the citizens to be more active, the relationship between government officials and the citizens remain representative and largely unchanged.

On the 1st of October, 2016, 唐鳳 Audrey Tang, nicknamed au by the g0v community, a Taiwanese Hacker, FOSS contributor, and an individualist anarchist, became Taiwan’s next Digital Minister. Since August when she accepted the nomination, au has been using Wiselike to collect and respond to questions from Taiwanese people and journalists here and abroad. People have asked questions on her personal identity, personal history, professional experience, political ideology, the new position in government, and her vision of the future.

Audrey has made a phenomenon appearing in the comment section of Facebook and Ptt posts that are related to her, and respond. Her responses are often in a calm and clear voice, laid out in bullet points, with mentions to relevant people, and links to relevant documents. Netizens often get very excited when witnessing a Minister running freely in the wild.

“How can an anarchist work for the government?” and Audrey’s reply. Source:
Audrey’s point-by-point response. Source: Facebook

Audrey also tries to make her scheduled events transparent to everyone on the Internet. She hires steganographers to meetings and interviews, official or private, then releases transcripts and recordings of those events. Recordings are often in 360-degree. If it is a professional interview, she often asks the interviewer to release the recorded material with a CC, if not a CC0 license.

Transcript of Audrey’s interview with Initium in May of 2016 using SayIt, a tool originally built by MySociety. Source: Article on Initium.
360-degree recording of a vTaiwan Hackathon. Source: Facebook
Hypertranscript of Audrey’s interview with RFI in October, 2016, using hyperaudio-lite. Source:

Perhaps this is the future of gěiwèn. A future when public officials are prepared, and seeking out questions to answer. A future when they consider building bridges to people of different position part of their job, and are equipped to have informative, constructive dialog with people who are critical, even hostile to them. A future when public officials are open by default, and produce searchable, machine readable data so that the people can know what they have said, and what they stand for.

This article, by @chihaoyo, is licensed under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.