‘Dissertation Gate’, Candidates’ Background and the 2022 Local Elections in Taiwan

Written by Mei-Chuan Wei.

Image credit: Kaohsiung City Government/ Wikimedia Commons.

‘Dissertation Gate’ and negative campaigns

The term ‘Dissertation Gate’ has been used by the media and general public to highlight an issue which marked the 2022 local election campaign in Taiwan. It refers to the phenomenon unseen before the mayoral by-election of Kaohsiung City in 2020, when the candidate of the Kuomintang (the KMT) Mei-jhen Li (李眉蓁) was fiercely criticised for plagiarism in her Master’s dissertation. Li publicly apologised for her plagiarism after the university from which she obtained her Master’s decided to revoke her degree. Whether or not plagiarism was the major factor contributing to Li’s failure in the election remains to be proved. Yet negative campaign strategies focusing on candidates’ dissertations, specifically plagiarism, have become increasingly popular among almost all parties since then.

Chih-chien Lin (林智堅), a rising star in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (the DPP), former mayor of Hsinchu City, and the original candidate for the mayoral election of Taoyuan City, decided to withdraw from the election after the two universities from which he obtained his Master’s degrees announced the decisions to revoke his degrees. However, with the unreserved support of the highly popular incumbent mayor of the city, Wen-tsan Cheng (鄭文燦), and his party, Lin’s chances of winning the Taoyuan mayoral election before his withdrawal were thought to be very high.

Oddly enough, Hongwei Wang (王鴻薇), the KMT candidate for the election of the council of another city, Taipei City, was the first to raise the issue of Lin’s Master’s dissertation and successfully drew public attention to it. So you would expect that it was the candidates from the same city as Lin’s that targeted him. But it is not the case. Wang then submitted a report about Lin’s dissertation to Chung Hua University. At the same time, another report alleging plagiarism was submitted by another person who was alleged to have plagiarised Lin’s dissertation to National Taiwan University (NTU). This person thinks the only way to prove his innocence is to report Lin’s case to the NTU, which is obliged to launch an investigation into the case. The decisions of both universities to revoke Lin’s degrees were a big blow to Lin’s campaign and eventually led to his decision to withdraw from the election.

The ‘Dissertation Gate’ effect has spilt over to politicians who are not running in upcoming elections. After Lin’s case, one incumbent legislator of the Taiwan People’s Party (the TPP), Pi-ru Tsai (蔡壁如), resigned shortly after a decision from the Tekming University of Science and Technology (德明財經科技大學) from which she had earned her Master’s degree decided to revoke it. According to the news report, the main reason why Tsai resigned was because of concern about the potentially negative impact on the campaigns of the party’s other candidates. And Tsai’s colleague Hung-an Kao (高虹安), the TPP’s candidate for Hsinchu mayoral election, has also been accused of plagiarism in her dissertation. However, the university Kao had studied for her doctorate, the University of Cincinnati, has published a statement saying that no evidence of her plagiarism had been found. It is thus interesting to ask why ‘Dissertation Gate’ has come to dominate election campaigns, becoming the main focus of public attention and concern.

‘Diploma first’ culture and candidates’ education background

Crucial for understanding why ‘Dissertation Gate’ has dominated the election campaign is the deeply rooted culture of ‘diploma first’ or ‘degree first’ (學歷至上) in Taiwan concerning a candidate’s background and qualification. Other factors, such as whether a candidate has a criminal record, are extremely important too. However, candidates’ educational backgrounds appear to be more influential than other factors in the electorate when deciding how to vote. Electorates in Taiwan tend to think that if candidates study in prestigious schools and earn degrees, they will be better at governing.

In the 2003 article ‘Exploring the Electorate’s Ideal Candidate: The Case of 2000 Presidential Election in Taiwan’, Ching-Hsin Yu, a research fellow of the Election Study Center of the National Chengchi University, shows that educational background is considered to be an extremely important qualification of an ideal candidate. This is so even when a candidate possesses little or no knowledge or experience directly related to politics. In this context, we can note that three out of four presidents in democratic Taiwan (from 1996 to the present), including Lee Teng-hui, Ma Ying-jeou, and Tsai Ing-wen, all have doctoral degrees.

Many politicians share the idea that better education would make them more ‘attractive’ to the electorate. This belief leads them to pursue degrees. Pursuing a degree and/ or higher degrees, for many who are politicians already or plan to become one, has thus become a ‘must do’ in developing their political careers. Lin’s case provides evidence of a further point: obtaining a Master’s degree is insufficient if one is not conferred by a university considered by the public to be sufficiently prestigious.

Reorientating the election campaign and focusing on policy

The idea held by many in Taiwan that a highly educated candidate means a better or more capable political leader or politician is problematic. The importance and value of education are undeniable, be it for self-realisation and individual careers or the development of a society, a nation or the world. However, education should not be equated with the knowledge or other desirable characteristics such as honesty and integrity.  

The focus on candidates’ educational background, when excessive emphasis is placed on it, can have consequences detrimental to the healthy functioning of Taiwan’s democracy. The most worrying one is the negative campaign seen in ‘Dissertation Gate’, which has distracted the public attention from candidates’ policy platforms. Some may argue that examining candidates’ or politicians’ dissertations is a way of checking their integrity and honesty. However, the consequences of the campaign dominated by the ‘Dissertation Gate’ should be weighed against the risks of sidelining policy issues.

Mei-Chuan Wei is an Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, College of Social Sciences at National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan.

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

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