Inspired by a Netflix drama, Taiwan finally has its #MeToo moment

In Wave Makers, Chang Ya-ching exposed her #metoo story with the help of Weng Wen-fang, a lesbian political consultant. Screen capture from Netflix's Youtube Channel.

A belated #MeToo storm hit Taiwan after a victim of sexual harassment posted a Facebook post exposing how the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) neglected or even suppressed complaints from within the party.

Amid the storm, nearly 800 DPP staffers released a joint statement opposing the party’s decision to support former Kuomingtang (KMT) spokesperson Lee Cheng-hao in his candidacy for the Yonghe district seat in the upcoming legislative yuan elections. Lee was accused of taking nude photos of his former girlfriend and using them to blackmail and manipulate her. In response to the criticism, Lee stressed he won the court case over the dispute

The DPP staffers cited court records and slammed him for avoiding pieces of hard evidence presented in court, which included nude photos and chat records that established the prosecution's case. Their statement said his response to the sexual harassment allegation was misleading, unethical, and unrepentant. 

Certain details of Lee’s case resembled the fictional “Wave Makers,” a popular Netflix drama that explores gender and sexual dynamics in politics against the backdrop of a presidential election in Taiwan. In the show, a ruling party politician, Chao Chang-ze, manipulated his staffer-mistress, Chang Ya-ching, with her nude photos. The latter finally had the courage to expose her #MeToo story with the help of Weng Wen-fang, a lesbian political consultant from the opposition party.

The DPP staffers’ statement pointed to the Netflix drama and urged the party to stand with progressive values and stop ignoring sexual harassment inside the party under the pretext of privacy or “domestic matters.”

Concurrently, Amber Chen, the original whistleblower on sexual harassment within DPP, spoke out on May 31. Chen told her #MeToo story on her personal Facebook page. She was a former DPP staffer in the women's department. The sexual harassment occurred in a vehicle when she was working for the Taiwanese district elections in September 2022. When she filed a complaint with her supervisor, she was ignored and blamed for not “screaming out for help” or “jumping out of the car” when the harassment happened. 

Chen said that she was inspired by “Wave Makers” and was disappointed the party did not have someone like Weng Wen-fang to back her up.

After Amber Chen’s testimony, more DPP former staff members came forward and told their stories of sexual assault and harassment from within the party. Another former DPP staffer from the youth department revealed on Facebook that she was pressured to resign after filing a sexual harassment complaint with her supervisor, who allegedly blamed her for seducing the perpetrator. 

Political scientist Sung Wen-Ti has followed Taiwan's # MeToo moment closely:

By June 9, a dozen middle to top-ranking DPP staffers were accused of sexual harassment. Within one week, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen apologized twice to the public and stressed that the ruling party had zero tolerance for sexual harassment. At least three key party staffers, including one of Tsai’s political advisers, Yan Chih-fa, resigned.

The #MeToo storm has affected not only the ruling DPP but also the pro-China KMT, as well as the civil society sector.

On June 2, one of the scriptwriters for “Wave Makers,” Chien Li-Ying, took to Facebook to claim that an exiled mainland Chinese poet Bei Ling had sexually harassed her. The prominent writer denied it and said the allegation was fabricated, but others stood up and backed Chien’s testimony.

Also, on June 2, Lee Yuan-chun, a political activist, accused prominent Tiananmen activist Wang Dan of attempting to rape her in a hotel room in 2014 during a tour in New York City. He was 19 when the incident happened. Wang denied the allegation and suggested that it was politically motivated. Lee then took his case to the court to clear his name. 

As of June 9, more than 30 sexual harassment survivors have publically shared their painful experiences in political parties, media organizations, universities, NGOs, etc.

Currently, most analyses of the impact of the #MeToo storm are focusing on the upcoming elections as the popularity of Hou Yu-ih,  KMT’s official candidate for the 2024 Taiwanese presidential electionssurged more than four points after he voiced support for the #MeToo movement. 

But many are expecting more fundamental changes.

Although Taiwan is a democratic country with very strong feminist and LGBTQ+ movements, the global #MeToo campaign had been absent as victims of sexual assault and harassment seldom came forward.

According to official statistics, the Taiwanese authorities received 2,086 sexual harassment reports in 2022; authorities followed up on about 73 percent of these. However, local NGOs pointed out that the data only reflected the tip of the iceberg, as typically, only 10 percent of sexual harassment victims report their cases to the authorities, as victim-blaming prevails in patriarchal Chinese communities in which people tend to prioritize the value of “relation” and “seniority” in daily interaction; hence, women and young people are very vulnerable in a hierarchical office setting. It relies on the young generation to change the collective mindset, as pointed out by Lee Shu-Ching, a scholar of education.

The phenomena of “Himpathy” is very common in political parties, as pointed out by a widely circulated comment written by Lee Hsin Wen, a scholar of applied ethics:

The only way to address the crisis is a comprehensive change in the social system and culture, Lee stressed in her commentary. 

Another widely shared commentary by Su Chih-heng, a Taiwanese writer, called for “transitional justice,” a political mechanism to resolve conflicts and address the issue of gender and sexual injustice as reflected in the #MeToo campaign:

轉型正義不是加減乘除,不能記功銷過。MeToo 受害者,跟白色恐怖的受難者,所要的都是最基本的「把人當人看」的基本人權,這是不分省籍、族群、性別、性傾向、黨派、國籍的當代民主人都信念的共同體價值。所謂的「和解」,是建立在真相的基礎之上。真正的「和解」需要的,是對於加害者咎責以及對受害者在名譽和生存機會上的補償。要達成真正的「和解」,我們需要對於彼此處境更有好奇心,尋求引導不公義行為的制度設計能夠改變,以預防悲劇的再發生。轉型正義要的,就只是這麼簡單的「再民主化」。

Transitional justice is not a balance sheet of good and bad deeds. The victims of #MeToo, like those who suffered from the White Terror Era [Editor's note: the Taiwan White Terror took place between 1947–1987 when about 18,000–28,000  Taiwanese were executed or killed during crackdowns for challenging KMT’s military dictatorship], demand the most basic human rights — to be treated like a human. This is a universal value shared among people who believe in democracy regardless of their ethnic background, Chinese belongings, gender, sexual orientation, party affiliations and nationalities. The resolution of conflicts has to be based on the truth. The perpetrators have to be accountable for their crimes and provide reparation to the victims. To achieve a real resolution, we have to understand the setting that facilitates the unjust relationship in order to redesign the system and prevent the tragedy from repeating. This is a “re-democratization” process under the idea of transitional justice. 

After the #MeToo storm, Lee Cheng-hao announced he was withdrawing from running the legislature race. President Tsai Ing-wen promised to improve gender and sexual education in schools, review the sexual harassment complaints mechanism, and introduce more legal reform. Taiwanese society is moving a step forward.

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