Tsai Ing-wen, Ho De-fen, and Hwan Lin will argue in court over a London School of Economics thesis (credits: Voice of America/National Taiwan University/Belk College)
Tsai Ing-wen, president of the Republic of China in-exile, has filed a defamation lawsuit against Ho De-fen, professor emeritus at National Taiwan University, and Hwan Lin, a professor at Belk College in North Carolina. The lawsuit is over recent remarks the two professors have made about Tsai’s 1984 doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics. According to the LSE Library, Tsai did not submit her thesis to the library as required when she graduated. Nagging questions about the missing thesis prompted Tsai to submit the thesis in 2019, thirty-five years late.
Hwan Lin, a respected scholar with impeccable academic credentials, traveled to London and reviewed Tsai’s thesis this summer. Upon his return Lin issued a fifty page report on his observations and findings. According to Lin, the faxed thesis appeared to be a draft version with missing pages, handwritten comments, and page numbers that did not match the table of contents. Lin’s report included copies of his email exchange with the university about the thesis.
Ho De-fen, upon reading Lin’s report, called a news conference and questioned the validity of Tsai’s doctorate. Ho’s statements triggered Tsai’s lawsuit. Tsai is represented by attorneys Lien Yuan-lung and Chang Jen-chih.
If Tsai thinks the litigation will quiet the storm she is mistaken. What has been largely an academic dispute has now been pushed to a new level and secrets of her student years will become the subject of discovery, interrogatories, and depositions. The Taipei Times is now following the controversy which was previously largely confined to social media.
Tsai has taken on a formidable adversary that can be expected to wage a vigorous defense. Ho is no newcomer to the political arena. In her younger days Ho was active with the Wild Lilies movement against authoritarianism. A vocal proponent of democracy, Ho was a founder of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights in 1999 and later helped form the Taiwan Media Watch Foundation.
In support of her lawsuit Tsai has released some of her student records that shed a little light on a mystery man, Michael Elliot. Now deceased, Elliot is unable to answer any questions about his role in the thesis writing. After Tsai belatedly submitted her thesis the LSE Library cataloged the entry and listed Elliot as a co-author. That catalog entry was changed a week later and dropped Elliot. In her acknowledgements section of the thesis Tsai referred to Elliot has her supervisor. However, Elloit lacked a doctorate and could not, under standard academic protocol, have been her faculty advisor unless the London School of Economics lowered the standards in Tsai’s case. In Tsai’s newly disclosed student records, professors Lazar and Elliot are listed as her advisers in 1981. Only Elliot is listed in 1982 and no one is identified as adviser in 1983. The records also suggest that Tsai changed her thesis title during her course of study.
The irregularities surrounding Tsai’s student days and remaining questions about the award of a diploma now put the London School of Economics on trial although not formally named as a party. The university’s practices surrounding foreign students are sure to be closely examined by the defense.
Tsai does have one advantage in the case, the ROC’s antiquated judicial system with its “dinosaur judges” and lack of jury trials. During the ROC occupation of Taiwan, since World War II, the judiciary was used to imprison thousands of political prisoners during the White Terror era. More recently the flaws in the legal system were on display in the corruption trial of Tsai’s predecessor Chen Shui-bian. Chen had his judge switched contrary to court rules, was subjected to midnight court sessions, was heckled by spectators in the court room, and the victim of perjured testimony by a star witness. More recently, the ROC prosecution of the leaders of an advocacy group, Taiwan Civil Government, were held incommunicado without bail for five months until the group bought a full page ad in the New York Times pleading for bail. The prosecution of TCG leaders for political fraud has been marred by supposed victims that deny their victim status and are not permitted to testify.
Taiwan’s longstanding unresolved sovereignty that leaves an exiled Chinese regime in control of the island has created a swamp of confusion often called a “strategic ambiguity” that puts a Chinese flag on Tsai’s desk. Tsai’s thesis controversy that she has chosen to take to court now leaves her dancing in a new quagmire of her own making.