Politics & Law

Taiwan's #MeToo moment

20 June, 2023

The wave of #MeToo cases that has swept across Taiwan has gone on for over three weeks now. The influence of the wave of allegations has already been profound, though whether this leads to lasting social and political change regarding entrenched issues of sexual assault or harassment remains to be seen.


By Brian Hioe


Even if it prompted much discussion among feminist and civil society circles at the time of the phenomenon’s outbreak in the West, there was no wave of #MeToo allegations in Taiwan at that time. As such, the wave of #MeToo cases in the last month represented the phenomenon’s entrance into Taiwan in earnest. There were precedents, such as the online reports of sexual harassment that led to former Sunflower Movement leader Chen Wei-ting’s withdrawal from a 2014 by-election for the legislature in Miaoli. Yet, this in itself predated the global #MeToo movement.


It may be telling that the wave of allegations began in political circles, before spreading to artistic, cultural, and academic circles. After all, it has often been the case that issues regarding sexual harassment, “revenge porn,” and sexual harassment were first discussed in the context of politics in Taiwan.


Two cases in point may be illustrative. The first is the 2021 controversy over a Telegram group operated by YouTuber “Xiao Yu,” which drew comparisons to South Korea’s “Nth Room” scandal. The Telegram group was devoted to producing “deepfake” pornographic videos of female public figures, in which their faces were attached to adult films, as well as taking commissions for custom-producing deepfakes, usually of people’s exes. The group had over 8,000 users by the time Xiao Yu, whose real name is Zhu Yu-chen, was arrested over the deepfake production ring.


Subsequently, there were calls for stronger punishments for the production and dissemination of deepfakes or other forms of revenge porn. Particularly with the continued growth of AI and related forms of digital technology, it remains to be seen if laws can keep pace with newly developed technologies, as they are used for revenge porn.


The second is the controversy that broke out after domestic abuse against DPP legislator Kao Chia-yu. In late 2021, Kao was detained and beaten by her boyfriend, Lin Bing-shu, also known by his pen name of Raphael Lin. Kao’s cell phone was taken from her and she was kept confined to a hotel room for two days. Lin’s actions were retaliation against Kao for exchanging texts with an ex-boyfriend.


Later public appearances by Kao seemed to show that she was hiding bruises and other wounds, which led to speculation before Kao came forward with the details of the abuse she suffered. Consequently, apart from Lin’s arrest, this led to a period in which issues regarding domestic abuse were widely discussed in Taiwanese society. After all, the fact that Kao was a politically influential DPP legislator did not prevent her from being beaten and detained by her then-partner. To this extent, while Kao’s fame allowed for the publicizing of her experiences, this all went to gesture toward the scale of the issue, especially for women without large public platforms.


But in many ways, the controversy about domestic abuse suffered by Kao Chia-yu set the template for the later wave of #MeToo allegations, which were much larger in scale and became all-consuming of social and political discussion in a way that the Kao controversy was not.


The domestic abuse suffered by Kao was quickly politicized in that it became used as fodder for partisan attacks on the DPP. It is from this scandal that the claim that the “Daluban” label comparing the DPP to the Taliban originates from the pan-Blue camp, for example. This has been a recurring theme of pan-Blue attacks on the DPP in past years. Partisanship can be seen in the present wave of #MeToo cases, in that it may simply be used for partisan political attacks, without a genuine discussion of the underlying structural issues at hand.


Indeed, as with calls to increase laws against producing deepfakes, while one solution may be simply to strengthen charges for sexual harassment or assault, it remains to be seen whether this can lead to true redress of the issue. But it is another matter entirely as to whether any of Taiwan’s major political parties has an abiding interest in affecting change, or whether the present wave of #MeToo allegations will be used for political attacks against opposing parties, while respective parties hope to downplay allegations against party members.


An initial outbreak of cases against the DPP

In particular, the present wave of #MeToo allegations focused specifically on cases within the DPP. Namely, the initial allegation came from a former DPP party worker who alleged experienced a sexual assault at the hands of a party contractor while in a car. The former party worker in question, Amber Chen, stated that her superiors within the party had attempted to downplay the incident, blaming her for not screaming or attempting to jump out of the car. 


Chen made the allegation in the form of a post on Facebook. Subsequently, a number of allegations broke out from DPP party members about similar incidents, also alleging cover-ups, or that superiors in the party told them to downplay such incidents.


A number of resignations from the DPP ensued in the wake of the charges. DPP deputy secretary-general Hsu Chia-tien and Tsai Mu-lin, formerly the head of the DPP’s youth department, resigned after criticisms that they tried to cover up cases of sexual harassment or assault.


Other DPP members resigned because they themselves were implicated in cases of sexual harassment or assault. This included presidential policy advisor Yan Chih-fa and deputy director of Organizational Affairs Lin Nan-ku, with much media attention focusing on Yan, given that he worked in the Presidential Office.


Likewise, some of the DPP’s candidates pulled out of elections. Lee Cheng-hao, the DPP’s legislative candidate for Yonghe in New Taipei, withdrew in the wake of allegations that he had threatened an ex-girlfriend using nude photos of her. Nevertheless, Lee’s nomination had been controversial from the start since Lee was a former KMT member who had been expelled from the party over criticizing 2020 presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu on a television show. The DPP likely recruited him to run to try and make in-roads in an historically pan-Blue area, but Lee was distrusted in light of his background in the KMT.


Former DPP deputy secretary-general Lin Fei-fan, the DPP’s legislative candidate in the Zhongshan and north Songshan areas of Taipei, also withdrew in light of the charges. Lin did not face any charges of personal wrongdoing, but Lin was framed in some public discourse as culpable in that in his position as deputy secretary-general, he was in charge of the Gender Equality Committee of the DPP. As such, he was still seen as partly responsible, and so it was likely seen as politically necessary for him to fall on his sword, especially seeing as he was to provide the public face for a slate of candidates that drew heavily from participants in the 2014 Sunflower Movement, as the best-known student leader of the movement.

Apart from President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President William Lai making several apologies for the wave of cases, the DPP was likely hoping that through Lin’s resignation, this could be seen as making amends for the scandal. The DPP was likely hoping to prevent a similar situation to the thesis plagiarism allegations that sank the campaign of its Taoyuan mayoral candidate, Lin Chih-chien. Lin Chih-chien did not initially resign despite the charges, which is thought to have been a contributing factor as to why plagiarism charges eventually spread to other candidates, significantly impacting the party’s performance in 2022 nine-in-one elections.


Controversy spreads to the Pan-Blue camp and other circles

A unique aspect of #MeToo in Taiwan was that it heavily cited the hit Netflix drama Wave Makers. Wave Makers depicted a fictionalized version of the DPP during a presidential campaign year. However, the issue of sexual harassment and assault within Taiwanese political parties was the main issue focused on by the drama.


It was later reported that the scriptwriters of Wave Makers had worked in or had family ties with the DPP, as a result of which the plot of Wave Makers drew from real incidents – including those later spilled out into the open after the wave of allegations. Nevertheless, in Wave Makers, sexual harassment and assault was depicted as an issue present within both major political parties – including in the fictionalized version of the KMT that appears in the show.

The KMT and pan-Blue camp has, too, experienced a wave of sexual harassment or assault allegations. Some of the allegations pertain to pan-Blue presidential candidates in the 2020 elections, regarding allegations in the Taipei and New Taipei mayoral administrations under the KMT’s presidential candidate and New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi, and during the mayoral administration of former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je.


The most prominent such allegations include a director in the New Taipei water resources department that harassed female workers, as well as a case in the New Taipei City government where a female employee killed herself after experiencing sexual assault. Where Taipei is concerned, a number of cases reported involve a security guard that locked female city government workers in their offices.


Otherwise, KMT legislator Fu Kun-chi was accused of sexual harassment by Mirror Literature CEO Tung Cheng-yu. Likewise, KMT-affiliated thinktank researcher Albert Tzeng faced more than twenty allegations of sexual harassment, though the KMT claims no affiliation with Tzeng at present. Furthermore, KMT Taipei city councilor Chung Pei-chun accused pan-Blue commentator and fantasy translator Lucifer Chu of sexual harassment.


Eventually, #MeToo allegations spread to celebrity and academic circles. Among those accused of sexual harassment or assault include media personality Chu Kai-hsiang, comedian Mickey Huang, writer Zhang Tie-zhi, and literary historian Chen Fang-ming.


The former acting director of the Polish Office, Bartosz Rys, also was accused of sexually assaulting NGO worker Lai Yu-fen. Though prosecutors decided not to proceed with the case, the decision raised eyebrows because it claimed that it would not pursue the case because Lai did not resist the claimed assault strongly enough, as well as cited her four years of living in Germany and sociology degree to suggest that Lai should have been experienced enough to deal with such cases.


Former Tiananmen Square student leader Wang Dan, too, was accused of attempted sexual assault on two occasions, which Wang has denied, claiming that this is a Chinese plot against him. Wang currently plans to face the allegations in court, though another set of allegations has emerged since then.  


Some of those who have faced such allegations have pledged to withdraw from public life. Nevertheless, most allegations have continued to be focused on the political sphere, which may attest to the central role of politics in Taiwanese social discourse.


It remains to be seen whether sexual harassment and assault will be perceived as an issue facing just the pan-Green camp or whether the pan-Blue camp, too, will be seen as having such issues. Certainly, the DPP faces more pressure regarding the current set of allegations – one has seen no analogous set of resignations from high-ranking figures in the KMT to take responsibility for the #MeToo allegations as with the DPP. That Wave Makers led to a series of scandals that may affect the DPP’s electoral performance in 2024 proves ironic, when initially the show faced some criticisms for glorifying the DPP and whitewashing the party’s record ahead of 2024 presidential and legislative elections.


One strategy adopted by the pan-Green camp, then, has been to attack the KMT over such issues to distract from the DPP, while framing the DPP as making greater amends over the issue than the KMT. Certainly, the sheer volume of #MeToo cases coming out may dilute the public perception of the issue as one specifically facing the DPP.


It may also be that the issue will have less resonance among some quarters of the pan-Blue camp. The TPP’s presidential candidate, former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, previously faced public criticism over misogynistic statements. This includes body shaming comments, such as referring to Control Yuan president Chen Chu as a “fat sow,” claiming that women are “scary” without make-up, and denigrating gynecologists as “working between women’s legs.” Despite Ko’s history of this and other controversial comments, this has not prevented him from polling highly at present, with Ko performing better than KMT presidential candidate Hou You-yi in some polls.


One notes that many public figures that have come under scrutiny for sexual misconduct in the past eventually staged returns to public life. One case in point is how singer-songwriter Wang Leehom came under fire for his treatment of his ex-wife, Lee Jinglei, during their divorce proceedings but eventually staged a return concert at the start of this year. As this is the case with celebrity scandals, this could also occur with the current wave of political reckoning.


More broadly, then, in spite of how large the present wave of #MeToo allegations has been, it could still be the case that this fails to change broader social attitudes regarding sexual harassment or assault in Taiwan.


Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom

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