Self-ruled island’s reckoning with sexual harassment and assault has been a long time coming.
Taipei, Taiwan – More than 30 people, mainly women, have come forward in Taiwan over the past month to share stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault on social media inspired by a hit Netflix series.
Some of the incidents happened more than a decade ago; others were more recent, but they call out men across politics, the arts, academia, and even foreign diplomatic circles.
Many have complained, too, of a culture of subtle misogyny that they face at school and in the workplace, with unwelcome comments from fellow male students and colleagues about themselves and other women.
Nearly six years since the #MeToo campaign took the world by storm, Taiwan’s reckoning with sexual harassment and assault has been a long time coming.
Taiwan’s first experience with #MeToo was relatively small compared with other places, although there were some well-publicised incidents. One included the release of a novel by 26-year-old writer Lin Yi-han that drew on her experiences of being groomed and sexually assaulted by her middle school teacher. The writer later took her own life, setting off a national discussion.
This time, it was the Taiwanese Netflix drama Wave Makers that inspired women to act.
The show tells the story of two women working to hold a male colleague accountable for sexual harassment in a thinly disguised version of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and was inspired by events in the life of one of the show’s writers, Chien Li-ying, who was allegedly harassed by exiled Chinese writer Bei Ling. Bei Ling has publicly dismissed the allegations as a “fabrication” according to Taiwanese media.
Chien and fellow writer Yan Shi-ji both have direct experience in Taiwan’s political circles, which makes the show eerily realistic for many Taiwanese viewers, said Brian Hioe, a frequent commentator on Taiwan news and non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Programme.“The series is very accurate, including … the details. For example, the DPP office is replicated as the office in the TV show. It’s exactly the same,” he said. “And so a lot of it is drawn directly from real life.”The realism has resonated with viewers since the show’s release on April 28.
Just over a month later, the accusations began to trickle in – by two party workers against their colleagues in the DPP, then against exiled Chinese dissident Wang Dan who denied the allegations as “unfounded”, and finally a stream of stories about men connected to Taiwan’s elite.
Hioe said the reports may have caused more of a stir as Taiwan is gearing up for a presidential election early next year, which means political parties are under more scrutiny than ever.
Women have also come forward with allegations against members of the KMT, Taiwan’s main opposition party, and the smaller New Power Party.
Former Taipei mayor and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party has also been accused of making “sexist comments” in the past about female political candidates and about his choice of specialisation as a doctor.
Ko has since publicly apologised and promised to change his behaviour as he embarks on his presidential campaign. His apology seems to have worked, and despite the backlash against him, Ko is still scoring higher in some polls than the KMT candidate.
“It’s a much more sensitive time, so this could allow for it to become a bigger story,” Hioe said. “And so, it started with the DPP, spread to Chinese dissidents, but also literary and cultural circles as well, and it’s affecting a lot of various spheres, academic life as well.”
Accusations have also shaken Taipei’s diplomatic circles after one Taiwanese woman publicly accused a Polish diplomat of sexual assault and revealed that a criminal complaint she had made in 2022 was not prosecuted.
Writing on Twitter, the accused diplomat, Bartosz Rys, said the Taipei prosecutor’s office had dismissed the woman’s complaint, adding that his accuser was financially motivated as she had asked him for 2.5 million New Taiwan dollars (about $81,000) to drop the suit.
The wave of allegations has surprised even those familiar with Taiwan’s gender politics like Ting-yu Kang, an associate professor at National Chengchi University who researches gender and media.
“As someone who works on gender equality in Taiwan, it is not surprising to me that there are many sexual harassment cases in a wide range of different industries and spheres. However, the sudden wave of #MeToo came as a surprise to me, considering Taiwan’s relative silence in the last wave of #MeToo,” she said.
Many of the institutions affected by the allegations – from the DPP to university programmes – have pledged to improve their systems for reporting sexual harassment, but Kang told Al Jazeera that deeper issues can keep victims from reporting incidents – from a desire to maintain workplace “balance” to the risk of a potential backlash from stepping forward.
“Like many other countries, online misogyny in Taiwan has been growing stronger in the past decade. Whenever there is a news article on sexual harassment or rape, online comments on the news almost always include lots of sarcasm and blame towards the victims. This makes the online environment a very hostile space to expose your predators,” she said.“A popular online phrase in Taiwan goes, ‘If you are a good-looking guy, there is no such thing as sexual harassment,’” she said. “Another popular online comment on rape or sexual harassment cases goes, ‘It’s not sexual harassment [or] rape. It’s just that they can’t agree on numbers,’ implying that women in such cases are merely scamming men for money.”
‘Generations of effort’
It is a reality that contrasts sharply with Taiwan’s relatively positive image in gender relations.
Since 2016, Taiwan has been headed by a female president, Tsai Ing-wen, who is also unique in Asia for rising to power alone and without connections to a political dynasty.
In 2019, Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage and regularly ranks alongside Scandinavian countries at the top of the UN Gender Equality Index.
On the books, at least, Taiwan also has robust sexual harassment laws on par with Western countries, said lawyer Audrey Lu, but in practice, sexual harassment can be a difficult crime to prove.
Beyond social pressure to remain quiet, evidence can be difficult to pin down, she said, while statutes of limitations can also limit legal and civil prosecution, and tough libel laws raise the risk of a public accusation ending in a lawsuit.
“This is also an important obstacle most victims will face because, as you can see in this recent event, many victims are talking about events that happened years ago – decades ago – because at that time, they were under so much pressure they didn’t dare to speak out against their teacher, their bosses, their professors,” Lu said.
“At least they can tell the public what has happened although they can’t take any legal action because of the statute of limitations.”
Lu dismisses the idea that it was the Wave Makers programme that is responsible for the recent wave of accusations.
“This is the effort of a lot of men and women put in fighting sexual harassment and sexual assault for many generations. This is a combination, not a one-shot or one-event impact of the TV show,” she said. “The TV show itself is the result of many generations of effort, otherwise it wouldn’t be such a work of TV or literature. Maybe the timing is right.”