Troll-hugger, anarchist and activist: meet the transgender government minister taking on Taiwan’s social problems

‘Sunflower protester’ Audrey Tang is trying to give social enterprises a break in her senior job in government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 1:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 10:19pm

As a transgender woman and one-time anarchist revolutionary, Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang has spent her life challenging preconceptions.

Now Tang – the world’s only transgender minister – is bringing her iconoclastic approach to the job, seeking to break down barriers between government and business and help entrepreneurs find solutions to social problems.

She told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that countries could only solve the problems they faced if government, business and the social movements to which she devoted her time before becoming a minister made common cause.

“I think that common value finding is of utmost importance to the governance nowadays when it comes to social entrepreneurship,” Tang, 37, said.

“Because otherwise, we will just have people lobbying for environmental values, for social values, for economic values, and so on without a coherent way to blend those ideas into a common value that everybody can live with.”

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Since she became a minister in 2016, Tang has pledged to give social enterprises – businesses that seek to benefit society as well as make a profit – preferential access to government contracts.

The first went to Agoood, which hires people with Down’s syndrome, to design leaflets. Since then, social enterprises have been hired to train disabled people and help them find jobs.

Taiwan recently announced a Social Innovation Action Plan to enlist their help in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals – 17 targets agreed by world leaders aimed at helping everyone live healthier, more prosperous lives on a cleaner planet.

Tang said social enterprises were increasingly filling gaps in the market for services once seen as the exclusive preserve of government – and often doing a better job.

Agoood, for example, has helped street vendors who use wheelchairs boost their trade by offering phone charging and Wi-fi facilities and Fairtrade coffee.

Tang was among the activists who occupied Taiwan’s parliament building in 2014 to protest against a trade deal with Beijing that they said had been agreed in secret.

Thousands of young supporters, many of them students, rallied on the streets of the capital for weeks in what became known as the “sunflower movement”.

In the tense aftermath, the government offered Tang a ministerial post, hoping she could help them prevent a repeat of the protests.

Her anarchist principles make her an unconventional minister – she refuses to take or give orders and practices “radical transparency”, making details of all her dealings – including a transcript of this interview – publicly available.

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Tang, who changed her name and began taking hormones when she was 24 after deciding to transition, has said her brain “knows for sure that I’m a woman”.

Changing her gender identity had informed her politics by giving her a greater understanding of what it was to be vulnerable, she said.

“Both organisational ability and this experience of vulnerability are very important.”

Despite a long working day, Tang makes sure she gets eight hours sleep, saying this is when she comes up with her ideas.

During her free time, she enjoys “troll hugging” – engaging with those who attack her on social media, and sometimes befriending them.

“Once you learn there are some common values there are no enemies any more,” Tang said.