Behind the Kao Chia-yu Saga

Behind the Kao Chia-yu Saga
Photo Credit: 中央社

What you need to know

The media-driven spectacle surrounding Kao Chia-yu belies real political forces at play.

Few media spectacles in Taiwan sustain for as long as the recent series of Kao Chia-yu related reports. An accusation and recrimination cycle, a photographic disclosure of a bedroom, and an intervention from Taiwan’s most prominent streamer Holger Chen have served the peddlers of cheap clicks well. But at the center of the extended drama is a telegenic and savvy politician with a media-bestowed moniker “The Goddess of Nangang-Neihu,” referring to the electoral district Kao represents in parliament as a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) member.

The origins of the affair are in Kao’s advocacy on housing affordability. In a televised interview broadcast on November 12, Kao is quoted as saying — off-camera — that young, single women of average to high income, like herself, cannot afford the apartments under construction in her district, adding that she had been renting for the past 10 years.

The property values in Nangang and Neihu are roughly as expensive as Kao suggested. But implying that she herself was among the young priced-out of home ownership furnished opponents with an opening. 

The first volley came from Taipei city councillor Yu Shu-hui of the Kuomintang (KMT), who was cited by the United Daily News, a publication viewed as KMT-leaning, questioning Kao’s inability to afford an apartment in her home district. Yu referred to Kao’s publicly available financial asset declaration, which lists ownership of two houses and four real estate plots. The two houses alone are worth NT$25 million (US$875,178). 

民眾被查水表 藍營:鼓勵員警傳喚
Photo Credit: CNA
Yu Shu-hui (right) at a press conference, January 5, 2020. 

Yu is as well-positioned as any in the KMT to benefit from sparring with Kao. They both are players in Nangang-Neihu, which they represented as city councillors from 2018 until Kao won a parliament seat. Both, too, are relatively young female politicians talked-up by their party’s boosters as ascendant.

In Yu’s first appearance on TV regarding the accusation, she attacked Kao for falsely pleading poverty. But most of her subsequent commentary suggested corruption, either that the apartments functioned as investments or were purchased under market value. Kao responded in a press conference to Yu by saying that the houses were purchased with a mortgage, and were for use, not speculation. 

The steadily negative coverage of Kao turned into a full-on media bonanza on November 22, when Kao posted two photos on Facebook of the bedroom in the apartment she rents and lives in. The clothes piled in her bedroom, along with a pillow stained from long-term use, showed that her need for space is legitimate, and that she is vexed by the same problems as common people. The post drew thousands of comments and a series of follow up reports across the media. A study of online mentions of Taiwanese politicians around this time revealed that Kao was surpassed only by President Tsai Ing-wen.

If Kao’s point in posting the bedroom photo was to change the conversation from the question of her authenticity, it seems to have been at least a partial success. Kao’s youth and gender make her an evergreen subject for misogynistic tabloid coverage. The very image of a private space of such a public figure was fodder for even establishment media for days. 

The ensuing explosion of reports and commentary took a bizarre turn. Among the more substantial was Yu’s re-entrance into the fray. Perhaps aware that latching onto Kao would earn media exposure, Yu further accused Kao of purchasing a Louis Vuitton handbag during a 2011 delegation trip to Italy. Joining Yu was fellow KMT Taipei city councillor Wang Hsin-i, who charged Kao as guilty of eating a snack — a cookie — that had belonged to her son and fallen to the floor on the trip. 

自爆武漢台商北市隔離場所 柯文哲稱會檢討
Photo Credit: CNA
Kao with Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, February 2, 2020. 

Some commenters, though, sought to sound out the real political forces operating. Holger Chen, the bodybuilder and live streamer, said that the media targeted Kao because of her questioning the removal of the ban on U.S. pork imports. Another source of vulnerability is that Kao is seen as an ally and potential successor to Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. Opposition to her from the KMT is a given. But Kao’s closeness to Ko means that she also has foes within the Green camp, who fear that she is a stalking horse for the presiding mayor. 

The saga encapsulates the incentive structures of Taiwan’s media — reporting on the most sensationalist and gossip-worthy trifles, particularly those that portray women in a negative light, for advertising revenue. But Kao was able to skillfully turn the discourse around to her own terms. The parliamentarian’s potential for high political office was recognized in her student days at National Taiwan University by DPP heavyweight Luo Wen-jia. There’s a reason she has enemies. 

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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