The Real Problem With Taiwan’s Plagiarism Scandals

The Real Problem With Taiwan’s Plagiarism Scandals

What you need to know

The focus on educational background in Taiwan’s electoral politics closes paths to office for the many without the power or money to gain degrees from elite institutions — illicitly or not.

Plagiarism scandals have a way of costing politicians in Taiwan their careers. One can see this in the recent fall from grace of former Hsinchu mayor Lin Chih-chien, who was running for mayor of neighboring city Taoyuan as the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate. 

Though National Taiwan University (NTU) has since invalidated his master’s degree, Lin has continued to maintain his innocence. He has been defended by his advisor, National Security Bureau (NSB) director-general and former Mainland Affairs Council minister Chen Ming-tong. Nevertheless, he will now be replaced as Taoyuan mayoral candidate by DPP legislator Cheng Yun-peng.

Two years ago the Kuomintang (KMT)’s candidate for the by-election in Kaohsiung to fill the seat formerly occupied by Han Kuo-yu came under scrutiny for plagiarizing her master’s thesis. The candidate, Jane Lee, did not withdraw from the race, which she was unlikely to win anyway, given the large margins by which Han was recalled. But the scandal added insult to injury when it came to her election defeat. 

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Photo Credit: CNA
Former DPP candidate for Taoyuan mayor, Lin Chih-chien, at a press conference on his thesis, July 24, 2022.

Nevertheless, with the DPP having successfully leveraged on attacks against Lee, presenting itself as the party above these sort of ethical issues, it is something of a humiliating retreat for the DPP’s Taoyuan mayoral candidate to pull out because of plagiarism charges. The two incidents have striking parallels. Similar to how the KMT was hoping to retain Kaohsiung after the recall, having unexpectedly made inroads into traditional DPP territory with Han’s 2018 election victory, the DPP was hoping to maintain control of usually pan-Blue Taoyuan after Cheng Wen-tsan surprised with his 2014 victory. And yet both the DPP’s and KMT’s candidates to succeed Cheng and Han were brought down by plagiarism scandals. 

All this goes to show how significant educational background is in Taiwanese society. Where politicians are concerned, educational background is shown not only on the flyers listing background and political platforms distributed to prospective voters by mail, but displayed prominently on campaign billboards. The more degrees from elite institutions a candidate can claim, the better — and all the more if the degrees are from international brand name universities. 

It may not be surprising that professionals in Taiwan often seek to bolster their competitiveness in the labor market with easy degrees. This often includes politicians, with academics, doctors, and lawyers among the professions disproportionately represented in officeholders. Academics loyal to both major camps act to ensure that their political allies or proteges earn degrees, even if this means turning a blind eye to or abetting plagiarism. The practice of securing an easily acquired pedigree even has a slang term, known as “laundering (one’s) academic credentials” (洗學歷).

NSB director-general Chen Ming-tong has faced charges of easily granting degrees to pan-Green politicians before, though he will not be removed from his NTU post after the recent scandal. The KMT has also flung plagiarism charges at major DPP politicians like Presidential Office secretary-general Su Jia-chyuan and Pingtung county commissioner Pan Men-an in the past, too, but these charges did not stick the way that they did with Lin.

But the pan-Blue camp is alleged to participate as well. Former KMT legislator Ho Tsai-feng and former KMT Kaohsiung city council speaker Hsu Kun-yuan were reportedly among those who sat on Jane Lee’s examining committee for her master’s thesis, for example.

The broader issue at hand is the commercialization of Taiwan’s higher educational system, in which many students pursue advanced degrees to distinguish one’s self from the competition. To this extent, with the rapid explosion in the number of educational institutions in past decades, it has become easier than ever to obtain degrees from schools or academic programs that are essentially degree mills.

Indeed, no less than President Tsai Ing-wen has faced baseless charges that her London School of Economics Ph.D. degree was never granted, which has sometimes been referred to as Taiwan’s equivalent of birtherism. Many of Tsai’s male critics simply seem to disbelieve that Tsai could have a Ph.D. due to her being a woman. At the same time, this attempt to claim Tsai as having fake academic credentials as a form of political attack is not inexplicable. It is, in one sense, a projection of anxieties and fears of an issue believed to be commonplace in Taiwan onto a foreign context.

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Photo Credit: CNA
Simon Chang presenting his doctoral thesis in a photo provided by his campaign, July 20, 2022.

Ironically, it is more difficult to prove that one has a doctorate than many realize. Lin’s KMT opponent in the Taoyuan mayoral race, Simon Chang, was Han Kuo-yu’s vice presidential candidate in 2020. Chang’s Ph.D. from Cornell University did not appear under “education” in the election bill distributed to voters because it was not certified by election officials. While spokespersons initially said that Chang was experiencing difficulties finding his diploma, Chang later stated that the diploma was hanging on the wall of his home, but that he did not manage to notarize it with the representative office in time for it to appear on the election bill. 

The endless cycle of plagiarism scandals is also a reflection of the underlying elitism of Taiwanese politics. All of Taiwan’s democratically elected presidents, with the exception of Chen Shui-bian, have held Ph.D’s. Though Chen is sometimes seen as lacking the cosmopolitanism of his successors due to never studying abroad, was still an academic elite, a graduate of National Taiwan University’s law department.

Yet this focus on educational background in electoral politics closes the path to politics for many without the resources to gain degrees from elite institutions — illicitly or not. The results narrowly restrict the kind of experiences that politicians that represent the public have to class parameters, to the detriment of Taiwanese with the least access to power and money. 

Indeed, all of Taiwan’s democratically elected presidents have educational backgrounds at NTU. 

This is not likely to change anytime soon. There is not too much in the way of public critiques of, say, how NTU graduates are disproportionately represented in politics, though one might see criticism of the predominance of Ivy League graduates in U.S. politics or Oxford graduates in U.K. political life elsewhere. And for those that cannot normally gain admittance to NTU themselves, one can, perhaps, finagle a degree out of a political ally.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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