Politicians Draw on Educational Background for Social Capital in Taiwanese Elections

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: 03.23 總統出席「2021智慧城市展開幕暨頒獎典禮」 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

Educational credentials have outsized significance in Taiwanese politics. This can be observed in that many recent scandals in the 2022 elections have been linked to the educational background of candidates, most visibly with the wave of plagiarism scandals that have been slung at candidates of both camps.

The current wave of plagiarism accusations against candidates occurred after pan-Blue politicians attacked the DPP’s Taoyuan mayoral candidate, Lin Chih-chien, with allegations that he had plagiarized his master’s thesis from National Taiwan University (NTU) from another student. Lin’s advisor, current National Security Bureau director-general Chen Ming-tong, defended him, stating that he had provided the data used by Lin in his thesis to another student. According to Chen, as the other student graduated first, this led to the misperception that Lin’s thesis was plagiarized.

Nevertheless, an NTU committee convened to investigate the matter and ruled that 40% of both theses were similar and recommended that Lin’s thesis be revoked, which later took place. Subsequently, Lin’s earlier master’s thesis from Hsinchu’s Chung Hua University was also revoked, also on charges of plagiarism. As a result, Lin withdrew, to be replaced by DPP Taoyuan legislator Cheng Yun-peng.

In the aftermath of the scandal that led to Lin’s withdrawal, one has seen a wave of plagiarism accusations against candidates of the pan-Green camp and pan-Blue camp alike. With the pan-Blue camp, this would be hoping to repeat the successes of the scandal that took down Lin. Chen Ming-tong has been a target of particular scrutiny, with calls for him to be stripped of his academic appointment at NTU. 

On the other hand, the pan-Green camp was likely aiming to take the heat off of itself by attacking the KMT and pan-Blue politicians over plagiarism charges. Among those attacked on plagiarism charges now include KMT Taoyuan mayoral candidate Simon Chang, who would have been Lin’s opponent, Nantou County commissioner candidate Hsu Shu-hua and Nantou County Council Speaker Ho Shang-feng, as well as TPP legislators Ann Kao and Tsai Pi-ru. Some allegations are about corporate or government-sponsored research or accusations of self-plagiarism, as well as research that was never published publicly. Recently, Kao has been under particularly heavy fire over plagiarism charges.

More broadly, the scandal points to the central place of educational background in political campaigning in Taiwan. Doctors and lawyers, both considered highly educated professions, have historically been common professions among political candidates.

Likewise, graduates of NTU, Taiwan’s most prestigious university, are also over-represented in politics, with all democratically elected presidents having been NTU graduates to date. If candidates have degrees from abroad, this is touted as part of campaigning. One notes that alma mater and advanced degrees are often listed on campaign advertisements as flyers and billboards.

The Lin plagiarism scandal calls attention to how electoral candidates seek to bolster their academic credentials by obtaining further degrees. Lin’s master’s degree from NTU was obtained when he was actually already mayor of Hsinchu, for example. Chen Ming-tong and other pan-Green academics have been accused of granting easy degrees to political allies in the past, though such accusations have also been made of pan-Blue academics. Former KMT legislator Ho Tsai-feng and former KMT Kaohsiung city council speaker Hsu Kun-yuan were on the examining committee of Jane Lee, whose campaign to fill the Kaohsiung mayoral seat was left empty after Han Kuo-yu’s June 2020 recall was sunk by plagiarism charges.

Most famously, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen has herself been accused of not actually having a PhD from the London School of Economics or having ever written a doctoral dissertation. Though such accusations have mostly been along the lines of conspiracy theories, one notes that this is a case in which domestic political practices involving granting easy degrees to politicians were projected onto a foreign institution.

Subsequent controversies have touched more directly on the question of educational credentials. For example, after coming under plagiarism charges, Ann Kao defended herself by stating that she was different from Lee, considering that she was a graduate of the Taipei First Girls’ High School and NTU, subsequently obtaining a PhD from the University of Cincinnati in the US. She contrasted herself to Lee as having obtained a master’s from first Chung Hua University and then NTU, framing Chung Hua University as a “night school.”

Kao’s comments were seen as elitist and drawing fire–including from other Taipei First Girls’ High School graduates–even as politicians with the same educational background have also sought to defend themselves. As Kao is running for mayor in Hsinchu, disparaging Chung Hua University, the local university, may not have been the smartest move. The TPP as a whole has also been attacked, given that its leader, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, often plays up that before his 2014 mayoral run, he served as head of the department of traumatology at the NTU Hospital. Critics have labelled this as being another sign of elitism.

It is interesting to note that some politicians do not, in fact, try to frame their public images around their educational background or former profession, but others lean heavily into the image. While Ko has made his past career as a doctor into a significant part of his public image, one notes that Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chi-mai and Vice President William Lai, too, are doctors. Though Chen and Lai appeared in white medical coats for some COVID-outreach efforts, neither Chen nor Lai incorporated their past medical practice into their public image significantly.

It is not merely a matter of prestige that leads to many politicians in Taiwan using advanced degrees to bolster their campaigns, but also a revolving door between academia and politics. High-level government officials such as Chen Ming-tong or, say, former KMT premier Jiang Yi-huah, former NPP chair Huang Kuo-chang, or current DPP New Taipei mayoral candidate Lin Chia-lung are former academics. This may contribute to the willingness of academics with a clear political slant to take steps to assist political allies or proteges in their capacities as academics.

Yet, in the past decade, one notes that there has been increasing scrutiny of social elites that run for office, such as individuals from political dynasties or who come from wealth. Kao coming under fire for elitism may be an early sign of how some attitudes about education have shifted. Candidates may want to have degrees from elite institutions, but coming off as too elite and out of touch with the common people is not beneficial to campaigns.

Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Backstage of the upcoming mid-term election.”

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