What started out as an academic inquiry developed to a dispute then magnified into a political issue embroiling Tsai Ing-wen in litigation, controversy, and confusion. Tsai, the President of the Republic of China in-exile, is in a defensive posture over her 1984 London School of Economics thesis. Much like Taiwan’s ambiguous sovereignty, Tsai is swimming in a sea of uncertainty, fogged in by clouds of misinformation swirling through the Taiwanese news media.
The story started in April when a researcher announced he was unable to locate Tsai’s thesis. The catalog entry at the LSE Library said the library had the thesis but that it was unavailable. Tsai remained silent and let supporters take up her defense arguing variously that the librarians mis-shelved the dissertation, that it was being scanned, or that it was lost. Tsai’s vocal defenders nearly silenced the questioners except for one persistent internet talk show host, Dennis Peng.
Finally, Tsai submitted what appears to be a faxed copy of a draft thesis. The LSE Library updated the catalog entry to indicate the thesis was now in the library possession and listed a co-author named Michael Elliot. That entry lasted about a week and then Elliot’s name disappeared. Intrigued by the growing mystery a North Carolina professor, Hwan Lin, traveled to London and examined the thesis. Lin issued a fifty-page report outlining his findings that included missing pages, handwritten notations, non-consecutive footnotes, and a lack of names and signatures of the academic panel that supposedly approved the thesis in 1984.
In Taiwan, Ho De-fen, a longtime democracy activist, studied Lin’s report and held a news conference questioning Tsai’s graduate degree based on Lin’s findings about the thesis. Tsai responded almost immediately directing her lawyers to prepare a complaint against both Ho and Lin. Dennis Peng jumped back on the story and soon found himself on Tsai’s lawsuit list. There things stood until yet another scolar, Hsu Yungtai, entered the picture. The Oxford educated scholar was already in London working on his sixth book and spent two days studying the copyright-restricted thesis. Hsu issued his own report, confirming the accuracy of the Lin report, and providing more information about Tsai’s thesis. Hsu choose to release his findings in a Kuomintang newspaper, World Journal published in the United States. The KMT quickly picked up the lead holding a news conference calling for an investigation of Tsai’s thesis. Hsu followed up with another newspaper article asking how Tsai can enforce the copyright restriction which prevents copying or quoting from thesis if it is the property of London School of Economics.
Tsai has not indicated if she plans to add Hsu to the list of professors she wants to see in court. She has however put on display what is purported to be her original thesis. Independent examination has yet to confirm the latest release is the source of the copy on file at the LSE Library. So what has the public thus learned about the authenticity of the tardy thesis on file in London?
For one thing, Michael Elliot, now deceased, has emerged as Tsai’s adviser. At least she calls him her supervisor in the Acknowledgments page. Two other professors are credited with providing “feedback” to Tsai, Professors John Barcelo of Cornell and B. Hindley of LSE get honorable mention although it is not clear if they were the academic panel that would have been required to approve the thesis to advance to a degree. Elliot, although a tenured teacher at LSE, was not a Ph.D. and would have under normal circumstances been unqualified to supervise a Ph.D. candidate.
Another thing we have learned is that Tsai did not submit the thesis back in 1984 according to the current catalog entry which says the LSE Library acquired the document in 2019.
We have also learned the thesis has three major parts, appearing to have been pieced together to make a whole. Included in Hsu’s report is the finding that 90% of the thesis uses justified margins while 10% does not. Because of the copyright restriction and limited public access the full power of academic forensics has yet to be applied to the thesis. Already Peng has been looking at watermarks and margins of LSE correspondence.
Perhaps the most intriguing discovery by Hsu is that the thesis is written in American “English” instead of the British spelling. Hsu, who got his Ph.D. at Oxford, says that British professors are very sticky on use of British spelling.
One more thing that has become evident is that the Taiwanese public is interested in the veracity of Tsai’s thesis and is frustrated with the inadequate Taiwanese news media coverage of the growing story. The Liberty Times had an erroneous article on the matter blaming this blog as offering biased reporting. Television talk shows, from both the “green” and “blue” camps, also carried incorrect information about Richardson Reports. One popular talk show went so far as to claim I was the source of “fake news” about the thesis. The unexpected and inaccurate attention from the Taiwanese media led the public to seek out the truth sending a two-month old story on the thesis written in July into a viral cyber world. As the views started climbing, Google search engines noted the traffic and placed the old story at the top of the search list for “Tsai Ing-wen thesis” providing the Taiwanese public at last with a source of news they could trust. At 428,000 views and climbing the blog motto, “News you can’t get anywhere else” has found an appreciative audience.
Now that the thesis has become a partisan issue and also in the courts the controversy only shows signs of growing further. Already the dispute has been compared to the battle over Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Stay tuned, more is sure to follow.