Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Taiwan's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to improvements in the rule of law, including the consolidation of judicial independence.
Taiwan's presidential election in March 2004 thrust the country into political turmoil. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) incumbent Chen Shui-bian was reelected, but by a very slim margin and only after irregularities: Chen and his vice president were shot just hours before the polling began. A legislative commission was established in August to investigate the shooting. At the same time, recent judicial reforms have reduced corruption and political influence over the courts.
Located some 100 miles off the southeast coast of China, Taiwan became the home of the KMT, or Nationalist, government-in-exile in 1949, when Communist forces overthrew the Nationalists following two decades of civil war on the mainland. While Taiwan is independent in all but name, Beijing considers it to be a renegade province of China and has long threatened to invade if the island formally declares independence.
Taiwan's democratic transition began in 1987, when the KMT government lifted a state of martial law imposed 38 years earlier. The KMT's Lee Teng-hui became the first native Taiwanese president in 1988. His election broke a stranglehold on politics by mainland refugees, who, along with their descendants, make up 14 percent of Taiwan's population.
In his 12 years in office, Lee oversaw far-reaching political reforms including the holding of Taiwan's first multiparty legislative elections in 1991 and the first direct presidential elections in 1996. Lee also played down the KMT's historic commitment to eventual reunification with China, promoting instead a Taiwanese national identity that undermined Beijing's claim that there is only "one China."
With Lee barred by term limits from seeking reelection, Chen's victory in the 2000 presidential race, in which he ran as the standard-bearer of the pro-independence DPP, broke the KMT's grip on politics and signaled that Taiwan would continue promoting an independent identity. After his election, Chen continued to assert that Taiwan should eventually be independent - the DPP's core position.
Chen won reelection in the March 2004 presidential polls by a margin of only 0.2 percent. Hours before the vote, Chen and his vice presidential running mate, Annette Lu, were shot. The candidate of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), who was expected to win the election by a comfortable margin, alleged that the shooting was staged to gain sympathy votes. The parliament (Legislative Yuan), which is controlled by the KMT, passed a law in August to establish a commission to investigate the shooting. The DPP and its ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), boycotted the commission on the grounds that it was unconstitutional; under its current statute, for example, the commission may have the right to detain citizens without a warrant. The DPP-TSU union also feared that it would be ignored in the commission; commission seats have been allocated according to representation in the Legislative Yuan, and so the KMT dominates the commission. The Constitutional Court held hearings on the constitutionality of the law and the commission. Elections to the Legislative Yuan were scheduled for December 2004.
Since the DPP victory in March, the government has appeared to take a firmer pro-independence stance. In September, for example, the premier (the head of the Executive Yuan), Yu Shyi-kun, publicly advocated for the first time that Taiwan develop offensive missile capability. Less than a week later, Chen asserted that the country should hold a plebiscite to assert its preference for independence, following the example set in 1945 by Mongolia. It is more than likely, however, that these moves were just ploys to shore up support among DPP and other pro-independence voters ahead of the legislative elections in December 2004. Even if Chen's intention were to assert formal independence, he is far from having the means to actually achieve this, as his party lacks a parliamentary majority. In addition, the United States, which supplies most of Taiwan's arms, cannot provide the island with offensive weapons (the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which governs US policy towards the island, stipulates that the US can provide Taiwan only with arms "of a defensive character").
Taiwanese citizens can change their government democratically. The 1946 constitution, adopted while the KMT was in power on the mainland, created a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system. The president, who is directly elected for a four-year term, wields executive power, appoints the premier, and can dissolve the Legislative Yuan. The prime minister is responsible to the unicameral 225-seat legislature, which is directly elected for a three-year term.
The administration of President Chen Shui-bian has been fairly successful in its attempts to crack down on vote buying and on the links between politicians and organized crime that were widely believed to have flourished under KMT rule. Nevertheless, electoral irregularities remain; the most notable recent example was the shooting - possibly staged - of Chen and his vice presidential running mate just hours before the presidential election in March 2004. Police also investigated some 2,000 cases of alleged vote buying during the election, though they did specify that they did not believe either of the candidates to have personal responsible for the bribery. Taiwan was ranked 35 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Taiwanese press is "vigorous and active," according to the 2003 human rights report issued by the U.S. State Department in February 2004. Print media are completely independent, but electronic media and broadcast television stations are still subject to government influence. Given that the government and political parties are barred by law from owning or running media organizations, and that most Taiwanese can access approximately 100 cable television stations, the state's influence on the media is, on balance, minimal.
Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious organizations can choose to register with the government; those that do may operate tax-free. Taiwanese professors and other educators can write and lecture freely. Laws barring Taiwanese from advocating communism or independence from China remain on the books, but they are no longer enforced.
Freedom of assembly and association is well respected. Permits are required for public meetings outdoors, but these are routinely granted. All civic organizations must register with the government, but registration is routinely granted. Taiwanese human rights, social welfare, and environmental nongovernmental groups are active and operate without harassment.
Trade unions are independent, though "a number of laws and regulations limit the right of association," according to the U.S. State Department report. Collective bargaining, though not widespread, is legal in most industries. Teachers, civil servants, and defense industry workers are barred from joining unions or bargaining collectively. Labor unions must submit their constitutions to authorities for review. Moreover, the law restricts the right to strike by, for example, allowing authorities to order mediation of labor disputes and ban work stoppages while mediation is in progress.
Taiwan's judiciary is largely independent, and trials are public and generally fair. There is no trial by jury; judges decide all cases. Recent judicial reforms have reduced corruption and political influence over the courts. In August, the Ministry of Justice established a task force to investigate corruption in the judiciary and brought several officials under investigation. In September, the government reasserted its intention to crack down on organized crime, corruption and bribery, especially ahead of the legislative elections scheduled for December. Another significant reform took place in August: the Legislative Yuan approved constitutional changes outlining a full-scale overhaul of the legislature. The changes, effective from 2008, include halving the number of seats in the Legislative Yuan and extending all legislators' terms from three to four years. Arbitrary arrest and detention are not permitted, and security forces generally respected this ban. Police occasionally committed acts of physical abuse against detainees, and a "historical and cultural tradition of corruption hindered police effectiveness," according to the U.S. State Department report. Still, police remain under civilian control, and human rights abuses are not considered a problem. Suspects are allowed attorneys during interrogations specifically to prevent abuse during detention. Prison conditions are generally adequate and conform to international norms; overcrowding is the biggest problem.
Taiwan's constitution provides for the equality of all citizens. The rights of the Aboriginal descendents of Malayo-Polynesians are protected, and the government has instituted social and educational programs to help the population assimilate into mainstream ethnic Chinese society. A quota system concerning employment of Aborigines and people with disabilities applies to firms wishing to compete for government contracts. Despite these efforts, the Aborigines still feel discriminated against: in November, for example, about 1,000 Aborigines held a demonstration to protest the Executive Yuan's alleged failure to allocate enough money for reconstruction in flood-ravaged areas of the country. Societal discrimination against Aborigines has lessened somewhat in recent years.
Laws protecting privacy are generally adhered to. Searches without warrants are allowed only in particular circumstances, and a 1999 law imposed strict punishments for illicit wiretapping. Travel is generally not restricted.
Taiwanese women have made impressive gains in recent years in business, but reportedly continue to face job discrimination in the private sector. Rape and domestic violence remain serious problems despite government programs to protect women. Although the law allows authorities to investigate complaints of domestic violence and to prosecute rape suspects without the victims' formally pressing charges, cultural norms inhibit many women from reporting these crimes.