Jane Lee’s campaign for Mayor of Kaohsiung was predestined to fail, even before the unearthing of her plagiarized master’s thesis. Seeking office after the recall of Han Kuo-yu, Lee garnered about 25% of the vote, losing in her home districts of Zuoying and Nanzi.

The combination of a predictable mayoral race and an unconvincing candidate created a vacuum that the Taiwanese media and online commenters filled with material from the gutter.

If we scroll past the headlines on the plagiarism scandal, there is nothing but frivolous non-issues, unnecessarily dismissive treatment.

The first rise in Google searches of her name came from a campaign music video set to Jay Chou’s Mojito. The reporting of it focused on Lee’s copyright infringement of Chou, but the main interest in the video was its unserious portrayal of Lee. What outraged the public was her reference to going to the southern Taiwan-based fast food chain Dandan to buy porridge that isn’t on their menu.

This kind of stunt is common internationally, and certainly in Taiwan. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je famously made a rap music video, and politicians in the United States and Europe engage all kinds of attention mongering. The Taiwanese media went wrong by not only giving undue focus to the video itself, but also by framing discourse about how bad Lee was at the stunt (neglecting to receive permission, not fact-checking the Dandan line), as if everything would have been fine if the ad was more professionally produced.

Lee’s proposals for developing Kaohsiung’s rum industry and a plan for using seawater for toilet flushing were met with the same mocking attitude. She was blasted for these proposals with screaming headlines, aghast at the potential costs and the very word “toilet.” Though the idea for seawater toilets was not fleshed out in much detail, or appeared to be part of broader sustainability vision, it’s not beyond the pale. Hong Kong uses the system, and its environmental benefits have the backing of several scientific studies. These topics became meta-issues, mostly about Lee embarrassing herself in public, rather than as poor ideas to be combated with better ideas.

The condescension with which Lee was treated was most apparent in the aftermath of virtual town hall she participated in. Lee was bombarded by a series of pedantic questions like, “Which district in Kaohsiung has the highest population?” and “Which district has the lowest population?” Visibly flustered at the treatment, she responded she knew that Kaohsiung residents needed “sunlight, air, and water.” It’s reasonable to expect political leaders to know this kind of information and to be able to withstand tough questioning. But it’s much more difficult to imagine a male politician being subjected to this kind of interrogation Lee faced, or having his attempt to dodge the questions become a story in itself.

Lee is a member of a party that stands for not much beyond protecting its patron-client network and closer relations with China, and it’s not clear from her campaign that she has a coherent political program. She’s the scion of a politically elite family, as her father, Lee Jung-chung, was also a Kaohsiung city councilor and is a confidante of former mayor Han Kuo-yu.

But there is also no doubt that sexism was driving a media narrative to gin up attention and web traffic for an undramatic race.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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