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What's behind Taiwan's belated #MeToo wave?

July 28, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Taiwan, ##metoo, #women's rights, #sexual assault
by:Sarah Li
Despite being Asia's most gender-egalitarian location, Taiwan has a history of covering up sexual harassment complaints. So what caused the sudden surge of #MeToo accusations?

Sabrina Lim, a 33-year-old Taipei city councillor, described Taiwan’s recent #MeToo movement as "an outbreak of hives."

In the past two months, Taiwan has witnessed a surge of over 100 sexual abuse accusations, with new ones surfacing almost daily. This reckoning has rapidly extended from political, music, and art circles to all areas of society.

But Lim found the copious accusations "unsurprising." "Sexual harassment has sadly become all too common," the non-partisan politician told FairPlanet, adding that as a woman in politics she receives disturbing messages nearly every day and faces unwanted physical contact from time to time.

Despite being widely considered the most gender-egalitarian location in Asia, Taiwan saw few victims calling their perpetrators out or filing formal reports until recently. The Reporter, a Taiwanese investigative news media, combed through data from the Ministry of Labour and found that up to 80 per cent of people who had experienced workplace sexual misconduct chose to remain silent last year. 

Experts attribute this to Taiwan's long-standing practice of covering up sexual harassment complaints, which they believe is due to prevalent victim-blaming and chauvinism in both politics and workplaces.

“Let’s not let this go”

Taiwan’s #MeToo is revealing a long-existing, hidden culture of victims being silenced due to "deep-rooted conservatism." Lim told FairPlanet that victims are often urged to suppress the trauma of being sexually abused.

Workplace superiors, she said, tend to down-play sexual harassment complaints with dismissive remarks such as "Calm down, it's not that serious," or "Don’t think too much; let’s focus on the big picture."

But the release of a hit Netflix drama inspired by such dismissals struck a chord with Taiwanese viewers, finally triggering the #MeToo movement in the country.

Drawing inspiration from real-life political events in Taiwan, Wave Makers is a series that revolves around a team of campaign staffers during a presidential election and delves into the issue of problematic handling of sexual harassment cases.

In late May, after the show’s release, the first real-world accusation was made public. A former employee of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) alleged that her superior disregarded her complaints of workplace sexual harassment and discouraged her from filing an official report. 

"Let’s not just let this go," she said, quoting one of the most popular lines from the Netflix drama. Her recounting of her trauma garnered widespread online support and brewed a storm that rocked the two major political parties in Taiwan. 

Weeks later, additional allegations had led to resignations among high-ranking members of the DPP and public apologies from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. In the meantime, the #MeToo wave circulated to other sectors, with prominent activists, writers and TV stars being called out.

On 2 June, Lim’s former assistant Lee Yuan-chun accused exiled Chinese Tiananmen Square protester Wang Dan of attempted rape back in 2014. After Wang’s denial and refusal to comment, Lee held a press conference with Lim’s help and field a lawsuit against him.

In the same month, Taiwanese thinktank researcher Lai Yu-fen accused Polish diplomat Bartosz Ryś of sexual assault in 2022, but the prosecutors decided not to charge Ryś, stating that Lai was in an environment where "one is free to move yet did not take any proactive action."

A belated #MeToo: Why now?

"Five years ago when a few accusations surfaced, the public’s attitude was generally sceptical and abusive," Wang Yueh-Hao, executive director of the Garden of Hope Foundation (GHF), a local NGO advocating for women's rights in Taiwan, told FairPlanet.

At that time, the global #MeToo movement broke out in the US, later making waves in East Asian countries including Japan, South Korea and China. Yet Taiwan, a democratic state and the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, saw no ripples whatsoever.

Wang Lih Rong, an honorary professor at National Taiwan University whose research focuses on gender-based violence, told FairPlanet: "Democracy reflects Taiwan’s gender equality in the public sphere. However, #MeToo is highly related to cultural and gender norm issues in the private sphere."

In other words, although Taiwan’s female representation in politics is relatively high - with over 40 per cent of the lawmakers being women - the social norm "is not so supportive for the victims" of sexual abuse, which discouraged them from coming forward and speaking out.

According to GHF’s Wang, Taiwanese society subscribes to the idea of "ideal victims," which presumes that a victim's behaviour or attire during a sexual assault is indicative of their credibility. As a result, if they do not promptly seek help or fiercely defend themselves when in danger, their accusation or complaint can easily be considered untrustworthy. 

problematic loopholes

Many cases also go unreported due to a lack of trust in the system, Wang added.

In Taiwan, three separate laws address sexual harassment, depending on where it occurred: educational institutions, workplaces or elsewhere. Cases of assault and rape both fall under criminal law.

According to the current gender equality law in employment, an incident of workplace sexual misconduct should be reported to one's superior who will subsequently form an investigation team. However, if the superior is the perpetrator, there is no other mechanism to avoid partiality.

GHF's Wang described this as "an apparent loophole" that can potentially accelerate abuse of power. "The perpetrator goes unpunished, continues to advance in their career, while the victim lives in a painful hell," she said.

Currently, the Taiwanese government is scrambling to plug the loopholes by consulting NGOs on how to revise the laws. On 13 July, the cabinet proposed a stricter regulation that would allow a third party to receive complaints if a superior is accused.

"We have seen these loopholes a long time ago, but there was no response despite several years of efforts in raising them." GHF’s Wang said. This time, "the #MeToo movement has put enough pressure on the authorities."

A slew of defamation lawsuits

Despite the #MeToo movement gaining momentum, numerous accusers in Taiwan are confronted with legal action or the possibility of being sued for defamation after disclosing their experiences.

According to Wang from GHF, this is primarily a result of an inherent power asymmetry, where the abusers frequently hold a higher social or professional status compared to their victims.

In late June, Taiwanese actress Tina Chou accused her former boss, a well-known TV host named Blackie Chen, of sexual harassment over an incident in 2012. Denying the accusation, Chen filed a civil lawsuit with his wife, demanding 10 million NTD (roughly 28,720 euros) in compensation. 

Chen intimidating response to the accusation had sparked public outrage, and many netizens condemned him for using his power to silence the accuser. On the next day, Chou posted on Facebook: "Feeling the suffocating pressure once again, but this time I will be brave. See you in court."

"It is one's right to resort to legal action," Lim told FairPlanet, "but it is an unfair battle when there is a huge gap between the amounts of resources from the two sides."

In June, Lim and six other politicians - most of them city councillors and one lawmaker - initiated a campaign called "Justice Should Not Be a Tool of Intimidation." They aim to provide free legal consultations and mental health therapies for those in need. If required, they also provide assistance in reducing the cost of hiring a lawyer.

A month later, more than 40 lawyers in Taiwan took on a similar approach, pledging to provide pro bono support to people who have faced defamation lawsuits for making public #MeToo accusations.

Lim accompanied those seeking aid to consultations, but found it distressing to witness their heightened emotional vulnerability when narrating their experiences.

"I hope one day we can live in a society where people suffering from sexual harassment will no longer have to repress themselves," she said.

Image by Ma Joseph.

Article written by:
Sarah Li
Embed from Getty Images
Taiwan's #MeToo wave has rapidly extended from political, music, and art circles to all areas of society.
Embed from Getty Images
Taiwan has a long-standing practice of covering up sexual harassment complaints,
Embed from Getty Images
Although Taiwan’s female representation in politics is relatively high, the social norm “is not so supportive for the victims” of sexual abuse.