Politics & Law
Plagiarism accusations as a contact sport
What the slew of plagiarism scandals in this election cycle says about the Taiwanese obsession with higher education credentials and how politicians take advantage of it, sometimes to their detriment
By Brian Hioe
The current election cycle has seen no small amount of scandals, ranging from topics including Taipei city buses to bidets, and mid-autumn festival barbecue. But if there has been one scandal that has dominated the news for this present election cycle, above all other news topics, it has been plagiarism accusations slung against politicians of varying political stripes. Focus on plagiarism scandals has been of sufficient ubiquitousness that there seemed to be more reporting on such controversies than on Chinese live-fire drills that took place around Taiwan following US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit to Taiwan in August.
The media firestorm began after the DPP’s Taoyuan mayoral candidate, former Hsinchu mayor Lin Chih-chien, was accused of plagiarizing his master’s thesis from National Taiwan University (NTU) from another student. Lin defended himself by stating that the plagiarism accusations were nothing new. Likewise, his advisor, current National Security Bureau (NSB) director-general and former Mainland Affairs Council Chen Ming-tong, stated that he had provided data gathered by Lin to another graduate student, Yu Cheng-huang, for use in his thesis. But, according to Chen, it ended up being Yu that finished his thesis first and graduated. In this way, Chen alleged, the data originally came from Lin, so it was actually Lin’s thesis that was the original research.
As Lin continually came under fire following the accusations, which were seized upon by the pan-Blue camp, President Tsai Ing-wen was criticized by members of her own party for not doing enough to defend Lin. This resulted in Tsai making a public stand in defense of Lin’s innocence and urging DPP members to also defend Lin.
However, a committee convened by NTU to investigate the allegations later found that Lin and Yu’s MA theses were 40% similar, inclusive of some of the same misspellings. As such, the committee recommended that Lin’s thesis be revoked.
Lin eventually withdrew from the Taoyuan mayoral race, to be replaced by DPP legislator Cheng Yun-peng. Lin has continued to maintain his innocence, but his other master’s degree from Chung Hua University was also revoked on plagiarism charges. There have been some questions raised as to whether Chen Ming-tong would also face academic repercussions, seeing as he still holds a teaching position at NTU, but it was later announced that Chen would not be teaching classes the upcoming semester given his duties at the NSB.
It is still unclear as to why Tsai came out and defended Lin, even though she was likely aware that he would be withdrawing from the Taoyuan mayoral race. It is possible that Tsai felt the need to do so in order to maintain her position within the party. The charges facing Lin caused a divide within the party, with some DPP politicians calling for Lin to be dropped in order to avoid hurting the electoral viability of other DPP politicians.
The plagiarism scandal facing Lin was a slap in the face for the DPP. The KMT had previously faced controversy after its candidate for the July 2020 Kaohsiung mayoral by-election to fill the seat formerly occupied by Han Kuo-yu, Jane Lee, was hit by accusations that she plagiarized 96% of her master’s thesis.
Evidently, high-profile DPP politicians can face similar charges. Indeed, the KMT lashed out at DPP politicians after the Jane Lee scandal by also accusing them of plagiarism, targeting Su Jia-chyuan and Pingtung county commissioner Pan Men-an, among others, as well as politicians that had been students of Chen Ming-tong. However, the accusations did not gain traction at the time.
Following Lin’s withdrawal from the race, plagiarism accusations were slung at his opponent, former premier Simon Chang, regarding research conducted by Chang during his stint as vice president of Acer for a research product of the Council of Agriculture (COA). Though the results of the research were not publicly published, Chang was accused of plagiarizing COA materials, and materials from the National Communication Commission.
Lin Keng-jen, the KMT’s mayoral candidate for Hsinchu, also faced allegations that 60% of his MA thesis was plagiarized from government materials. For his part, Lin has stated that he may be inappropriately left out citations, but denies plagiarism charges. Nantou County commissioner candidate Hsu Shu-hua and Nantou County Council Speaker Ho Shang-feng, too, have faced plagiarism charges, as has Taiwan People’s Party legislator Tsai Pi-ru. All three are now under investigation by the institutions that issued their degrees. Former DPP legislator Cheng Pao-ching, who decided to challenge Cheng Yun-peng in Taoyuan, is the latest to be accused of plagiarizing his dissertation.
What, then, lay behind the slew of plagiarism allegations? Given the DPP’s counter-attack on the pan-Blue camp with plagiarism charges, the pan-Blue camp has defended itself by claiming that the DPP is only hoping to divert attention away from the Lin controversy.
At the same time, one notes that plagiarism allegations are nothing new in Taiwanese politics. Most famously, no less than Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen faced charges that her PhD is fake or that her dissertation is plagiarized, charges originally circulated by deep Greens and then later embraced by the KMT. In the same timeframe, plagiarism charges against her vice president, Chen Chien-jen, were circulated by the KMT.
Such charges facing Tsai were conspiratorial, with the London School of Economics where she obtained her PhD later publicly stating that she did, in fact, have a doctorate. Yet what these allegations pointed to is how politicians strongly emphasize their educational credentials as part of presidential campaigning. This can be observed in how election campaigns and banners frequently list the schools where political candidates graduated from, as well as how educational background is featured heavily on the flyers that are sent to prospective voters listing the respective political positions of candidates.
That this is so has led many politicians to seek advanced political degrees, so as to bolster their election credentials, even if to do so they resort to plagiarism. One notes that Lin Chih-chien obtained his master’s degree from National Taiwan University during a period when he was also serving as mayor of Hsinchu, while Chen and other academics of the pan-Green or pan-Blue camp have been accused of granting easy degrees to political allies of proteges. During the Jane Lee controversy, it is worth noting that former KMT Kaohsiung city council speaker Hsu Kun-yuan and former KMT legislator Ho Tsai-feng were on her examining committee. Arguably, the conspiratorial allegations faced by Tsai were projecting an issue that is relatively common in Taiwan onto a foreign institution.
These issues are contributed to by the commodification of Taiwan’s education system, in which the number of educational institutions ballooned rapidly in a short period of time. Taiwan saw an increase in the number of colleges and universities between 1985 and 2005 from 28 to 145. This has made it all the easier for individuals to obtain degrees, contributing to an inflated educational system in which many pursue advanced degrees to bolster their resumes–though for politicians, degrees from elite institutions such as NTU are all the more prized.
Educational credentials are subject to great moral scrutiny, in that politicians face calls to withdraw over plagiarism incidents. But one observes to what extent educational credentials are used as ammunition for political attacks or handed out in order to benefit political allies, pointing to how education is used as currency for politics, rather than taken with genuine seriousness. In fact, what may be new about the recent round of plagiarism scandals is that the public honed in on a long-established political practice in Taiwan with great scrutiny, whereas in the past this would have been seen as a common practice that would go unremarked on.
Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom