Tsai Ing-wen, president of the Republic of China in-exile, once wrote a book that now she doesn’t want anybody to read. Tsai’s 1984 thesis for the London School of Economics entitled “Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Actions” is on restricted status at the LSE Library. Filed thirty-five years late, the thesis is at the center of debate about Tsai’s scholarship and honesty.
Somehow, Tsai was able to obtain a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics despite not having filed her thesis with the LSE Library, as did the 105 other graduate students in her class. Researchers, wanting to know Tsai’s views, looked in vain for the thesis until finally the missing document attracted media attention in June 2019. Tsai’s supporters blamed London libraries, scanning backlogs, and catalog mistakes. After it became clear Tsai did not submit her thesis as required she made a tardy submission by fax. Tsai also slapped a restricted access copyright limitation on the thesis preventing copying the document.
Professor Hwan Lin, a Taiwanese-American at Belk College in the United States, decided to do a little research himself and issued a fifty-page report on the history of the thesis, outlining a number of irregularities. Lin, who traveled to London and visited the LSE Library, found the faxed thesis to be a draft version with missing pages, page numbers that do not match the table of contents, and handwritten corrections.
In Taipei, Professor emeritus Ho De-fen of Taiwan National University picked up the quest for truth questioning the validity of Tsai’s doctorate. Tsai responded to the challenge almost immediately on her personal Facebook account and threatened Ho with legal action. Tsai called the questions about her thesis “fake news” and said Ho was “factually incorrect.”
In the midst of controversy over the thesis a mystery man has appeared, Michael Elliot. After Tsai faxed her copy of the thesis to the LSE Library in July the catalog entry was updated and listed Elliot as a co-author. That listing lasted about a week and then came down. Elliot, who now is deceased, was an instructor at the London School of Economics when Tsai was a graduate student. However, Elliot could not have been her faculty adviser as he lacked a Ph.D. If Elliot ghost-wrote the thesis, or co-authored, it will be difficult to determine what is his work and what contribution Tsai made to the paper. In the thesis Acknowledgments, which was retyped, Elliot is described as Tsai’s supervisor without further explanation.
Nothing has yet been made public about the identity of Tsai’s academic adviser, or the members of her oral exam panel. Tsai said in her Facebook statement, “In short, if I received my diploma, then I submitted my thesis.” Curiously, Tsai’s diploma is a modern re-issue, not the original award.
Tsai’s restriction on access of her thesis will keep critics from looking for plagiarism or other academic flaws but will do little to quiet the storm. This is not the first time Tsai has taken steps to silence public discussion about her thesis. Several years ago Tsai’s office reached out to a California internet discussion group that was chatting about the thesis. Allen Kuo, the chat editor of BATA, has confirmed that Tsai’s office asked through an intermediary to end the discussion topic. Kuo was told the matter was personal not political and he then complied with the request. Chagrined, Kuo is now calling for an investigation of the thesis authenticity.
This article has been corrected. Tsai’s attempt to silence discussion on the BATA internet group was made during her initial campaign for president, not after she was elected. Thank you to Allen Kuo for the correction.