Over the past few weeks, a belated wave of #MeToo allegations has swept Taiwan, marking a dramatic breakthrough in the island’s gender equality movement. Taiwan was an outlier when #MeToo went viral and global in 2017.
In a forum of the journal “Politics & Gender” published in 2021, we analyzed #MeToo in East Asia. We noted that the region’s #MeToo experience reflects the variations of “the politics of speaking out,” as the roles of mainstream media and political environment were different among these countries. We posited that the absence of the #MeToo movement in Taiwan, a liberal democracy and arguably the most gender-equal country in Asia – with legal same-sex marriage, a high proportion of women representatives, and a woman president not from a political family – might have been due to the lack of quality journalism in Taiwan, undermobilizing public opinions, and legal initiatives.
Why the #MeToo movement has arisen five years later is a puzzle to many. Some have credited “Wave Makers,” a Taiwanese political drama on Netflix. Its treatment of sexual assault and an attempted cover-up within a political party inspired many. A line from the show – “Let’s not just let it go this time” – has been quoted frequently in Taiwan’s #MeToo movement.
The show may indeed be a trigger, but the crucial factor sparking the wave is the gap between the public image of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its reality. Initial allegations of sexual misconduct were made against the DPP amid its nomination process, creating political embarrassment, and potentially jeopardizing its chances of winning the upcoming election. The DPP was accused of nominating a man accused of image-based sexual abuse and having high-ranking party officers cover up sexual harassments against young female party workers, while continuing to harbor the harassers.
As a party that claims to support gender equality, the DPP is vulnerable to such criticism. Under pressure, the party admitted its mistakes, which lent support to the victims’ credibility. For young women with no power to come forward against the ruling party, naming the perpetrators and enablers took immense courage. Their credibility has encouraged other victims to go to the court of public opinion for redress.
Notably, even without robust journalism checking the facts, in Taiwan’s #MeToo explosion thus far, the victims’ credibility is seldom challenged, whereas perpetrators who deny the allegations are often discredited. Quality journalism was the basis for the global #MeToo movement five years ago, and the lack of it explained the absence of #MeToo in Taiwan at that time.
Taiwan’s media environment has not improved since then, but several other factors may have converged to explain why public opinion has shifted to the side of the victims: a preexisting “whisper network” of sexual harassment, the evident unequal relationship between the perpetrators and victims, the power of coming forward publicly and naming names, and society’s rising gender consciousness.
It remains to be seen whether, to what extent, and in what ways those currently accused will be held accountable. They have responded to allegations in a range of ways: denying the allegations and lawyering up to silence their accusers and critics; issuing a public apology and staying low-key temporarily; or withdrawing from public or professional life as a self-imposed punishment – or a reluctant response to cancel culture. A few prominent figures, including a male diplomat accused of sexually harassing his female secretary, have resigned from their posts.
Varied legal venues are available for victims to seek redress, but they might not file complaints or lawsuits after publicly sharing their stories. Since the 2000s, Taiwan has passed three different laws against sexual harassment: one in education, one in employment, and one for the wider society. The procedures in education are relatively thorough and include an affirmative duty to report and investigate. Thus, amid the current #MeToo wave, when the accused perpetrators were college professors, the universities quickly announced that they would follow the established procedures. Most of the other cases may not be handled through formal mechanisms, however.
The employment law requires external mechanisms in governments and internal mechanisms in workplaces of over 30 employees. Once aware of sexual harassment, employers must offer “immediate and effective” remedies, triggering an internal investigation. Some have currently been activated.
The Sexual Harassment Prevention Act, which applies to cases outside the campus and workplace, has a poor enforcement mechanism that is the least mobilized in this #MeToo wave. Yet some organizations not required to have an internal mechanism plan to establish one voluntarily. This #MeToo wave has propelled some encouraging developments.
However, a case involving the chief justice of the Disciplinary Court, accused of sexually harassing his female subordinate, suggests a possible backlash. The Disciplinary Court is part of the Judicial Yuan, the judicial branch of the Taiwanese government. After the victim reported the abuse, the Judicial Yuan’s own sexual harassment protocol, which required it to report the case to its sexual harassment prevention committee, was ignored. Top judicial officers, including the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, arranged for the perpetrator to retire early under the pretense of health concerns. After the media broke the cover-up, the speaker of the Judicial Yuan lied to the public, all in the name of honoring the victim’s wishes and fulfilling its legal obligation to take “immediate and effective” actions. The handling of this case manipulated the law and broke the trust between citizens and the government, if not between the victim and top-ranking judicial officials. This cover-up case may further undermine the future practice of proposed legal reform.
As the ruling party, the DPP responded to the #MeToo wave by declaring that the party would strengthen its sexual harassment prevention mechanism. The government declared that new bills revising and strengthening the current laws will be introduced in the next parliamentary session. These moves may help, but they miss a bigger picture. Sexual harassment is about gender power inequality. Without changing the gender power structure, sexual harassment will continue to be prevalent. The DPP’s reform proposal failed to confront the party and the government’s structural male-dominated power.
The DPP, a child of Taiwan’s democratization movement 30 years ago, was a driving force of Taiwan’s gender equality advancement. Not anymore. Under President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female president and the DPP’s first female chairperson, the proportion of women in the cabinet, in the DPP’s Central Standing Committee, and on the board of the DPP’s policy think tank all reached a historical low, all below or around 10 percent. Only after the DPP suffered a huge electoral defeat in 2022 was the gender ratio of the cabinet slightly improved, even as the imbalanced gender power structure under Tsai’s leadership largely worsened. The collateral decrease of the DPP’s internal political competition is also alarming. In the party’s 2018 election for all major party offices, many positions were filled without contestants. These developments indicate a betrayal of the party’s proclaimed founding values, and a retreat in women’s political participation and representation.
Taiwan’s #MeToo wave is late but strong. If the country wants to pride itself for being Asia’s leader in gender equality, how the #MeToo wave is treated is crucial. Will proposed legal reform be realized, making the court of law more accessible for victims and holding perpetrators and enablers accountable? Will the unequal gender power structure in the political system be challenged and changed? The answers are unknown. But clearly, for the first time in history, Taiwanese society has taken the victims of sexual harassment seriously and is siding with them, inspiring hope for change.