Taipei District prosecutors in the Republic of China in-exile government ruling Taiwan issued subpoenas for two professors, Ho De-fen and Dennis Peng, for criminal defamation. Over a year ago, September 19, 2019, ROC President Tsai Ing-wen complained to prosecutors about three professors who Tsai said defamed her with comments on her controversial 1984 PhD degree from the London School of Economics. Ho De-fen is a law professor while Dennis Peng teaches media classes and hosts the True Voice of Taiwan internet television program. The third professor, Hwan Lin, lives in the United States and has not yet been served with a court summons.
Ho De-fen, an activist attorney, signaled she is gearing up for a major court battle by refusing to answer the subpoena and appear in court. Dennis Peng took the opposite approach and confessed to criticizing President Tsai’s thesis. Peng told the prosecutors to seek the death penalty because he was completely guilty. Peng, a polished showman, may prove to be a difficult defendant in a case that oozes politics, is riddled with questions, and has an international audience.
Tsai started the controversy in June 2019 when she filed, thirty-five years late, a copy of her 1984 PhD thesis with the London School of Economics Library where she attended school. The tardy thesis entitled “Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Action” triggered an academic firestorm with accusations of fraud, unfinished work, and an unearned degree. The 2019 thesis copy appears to be a draft document with footnote issues, pagination problems, and handwritten marks including a question mark. Tsai held fast and both LSE and the University of London, which actually awarded Tsai her degree, stuck by the story that Tsai honestly earned her diploma.
The thesis controversy briefly became an issue in President Tsai’s reelection campaign but died down after she won a second term. Critics of Tsai continued to question the events of 1983-84 in London that led to her degree. Freedom of Information requests flowed to both schools which continued to refuse to answer questions about the thesis. The University of London presently refuses to name the two thesis examiners who approved the thesis and will not even confirm if consideration was given to Tsai’s Masters degree. The London School of Economics refuses to give up internal emails about the thesis.
The refusals to answer questions or disclose records of the thesis viva examination, purportedly held on a Sunday in October 1983, led to complaints to the United Kingdom Information Commissioner. At least four complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office about the thesis have been made by various people. Three thesis-related lawsuits are pending before the Information Review Tribunal where international information requests are bottle-necked while the court reviews its stance on the territoriality of complainants.
One of the ICO decisions, issued September 16, 2020, and now before the Tribunal, ridiculed critics of President Tsai’s thesis and contained the statement: ”The Commissioner also notes that President Tsai has filed a defamation suit against individuals who have questioned the authenticity of her PhD and thesis.”
Taipei District prosecutors waited a year to act on President Tsai’s complaint raising an unavoidable question, why? The ICO decision, where Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, upheld Tsai’s right to withhold information about the thesis relied on Tsai’s “defamation suit” which had not yet been prosecuted. If prosecutors had not hauled Peng and ordered Ho into court on October 14, the ICO statement of September would continue to be false. Although prosecutors cannot be expected to admit they finally acted because of the ICO decision in the United Kingdom, the timing of the decision suggests President Tsai may have been forced to push for prosecution.
Dennis Peng, open and defiant, used his court appearance to carry on his running battle with Tsai over the authenticity of her London School of Economics thesis. “Tsai planned to use the courts from the beginning merely as a means to intimidate. Her first goal was to put pressure on her opposition. Second, Tsai took legal action right before the presidential election last year as a means to buffer the damage Thesisgate would inflict on her campaign. I believe Tsai knows that she can’t win the suit she filed.”
“I would like to remind Tsai and judicial officials that our claims against the president are based on evidence. We have proof to back up our claims. The results of our findings go beyond a shadow of a doubt. Tsai’s doctoral thesis and her degree are faked.”
“I hold a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication teaching at the National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism for 20 years and served as its director. I have advised on over 100 theses, and am thoroughly familiar with the rules and standards they entail.”
“I have continuously questioned Tsai’s thesis on the True Voice of Taiwan talk show for over 450 episodes in the name of justice. Over the past year and a half, the True Voice of Taiwan has accumulated 86 million views and reached 660 million people. It most certainly has affected Tsai’s reputation. The True Voice of Taiwan exists independently of government oversight. It poses important questions and does not cater to the ruling administration’s every whim.”
“I called the prosecutor’s office on November 12, 2019, to request a court date. For my crimes listed above, I am asking that the prosecutor sentence me to death. If that is what it takes for this case to be seen through, so be it. For the greater good of this country.”
Hwan Lin, the third professor, provided a video statement to a news conference in Taipei called by Peng following his court appearance. Lin noted he had not been subpoenaed despite authoring a fifty-page report questioning Tsai’s thesis. Lin believes that his residency in the United States has kept him out of the courtroom. Lin is very emphatic that he is unafraid of Tsai’s defamation lawsuit as all his remarks are based on his close examination of the thesis itself. Lin is convinced the only reason he was threatened with litigation by Tsai was to scare him into submission and silence him.
President Tsai refuses to name the thesis examiners who purportedly approved the thesis in October 1983, although she has said one was a law professor and the other an economist. Tsai’s advisor, before she withdrew from LSE, was Michael Elliott who lacked a PhD himself. At the time, LSE was not qualified to issue doctoral degrees and the University of London granted diplomas to those students whose name appeared on a pass list. Thus far very little oversight of Tsai’s studies have been revealed by either school beyond her name on the pass list.
Like the fable where two weeds grow for every one picked, questions about Tsai’s thesis continue to multiply keeping the controversy in court in both Taiwan and the United Kingdom. Tsai Ing-wen has opened a Pandora’s Box. Ho De-fen’s defense strategy is expected to be a legal challenge over the authority of the prosecutors to silence Tsai’s critics. Dennis Peng has made his defense quite clear, in a defamation case it will be Tsai’s thesis that is on trial.