Taiwan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Taiwan's political rights rating improved from 2 to 1 due to a strengthening of the electoral process by way of extensive constitutional and electoral reforms.


In 2004 and 2005, Taiwan launched ambitious constitutional reforms that have cut the size of the national parliament in half. The country also made an effort to reduce corruption and improve the quality of political representation through ambitious electoral reform. Taiwan's tense relationship with neighboring China took a turn for the worse during 2005 with Beijing's announcement of an anti-secession law, which authorizes the use of military force against Taiwan in the event "peaceful" attempts to unify with Taiwan prove ineffective. However, new channels of communication between Taiwanese and Chinese politicians emerged when then-Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party chairman Lien Chan accepted an invitation from Chinese president Hu Jintao to visit China.

Located some 100 miles off the southeast coast of China, Taiwan became the home of the Kuomintang (KMT) government-in-exile in 1949, when Communist forces overthrew the Kuomintang following two decades of civil war. While Taiwan is independent in all but name, Beijing considers it to be a renegade province of the People's Republic of China and has long threatened to invade if the island declares formal independence.

The breakthrough for Taiwan's transition to democracy occurred in 1987, when the KMT authoritarian ruler, Chiang Ching-kuo, ended 38 years of martial law, liberalized the media industry, and legalized opposition political parties. In 1988, Lee Tenghui became the first native Taiwanese president, breaking a stranglehold on politics by mainland émigrés, who, along with their descendants, made up less than 10 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 1991-1992 and the first direct presidential election in 1996. Lee also downplayed the KMT's historic commitment to eventual reunification with China and promoted a distinct Taiwanese national identity, undermining Beijing's claim that there is only "one China," which includes Taiwan.

With Lee barred by term limits from seeking reelection, Chen Shui-bian's victory in the 2000 presidential race, as a candidate of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), ended 55 years of KMT rule. Chen and vice presidential running mate Lu Hsiu-lien won reelection in March 2004 by a margin of only 0.2 percent after the two were both injured in an apparent assassination attempt. Opposition candidates Lien Chan and James Soong alleged that the shooting was staged in order to gain sympathy votes. Two lawsuits were filed, challenging Chen's win and seeking a nullification of the entire election. Both cases were rejected by Taiwan's high court.

The DPP gained seats in the December 2004 legislative elections but failed to capture the majority, as the party's leadership had hoped. President Chen Shui-bian resigned from his post as chairman of the DPP to take responsibility for the "defeat," with the promise "From now on [I] will be a president for all the people."

On March 14, 2005, China promulgated an anti-secession law providing for the use of "non-peaceful means and other necessary measures" against Taiwan if efforts to achieve a peaceful reunification are "completely exhausted." Polls show that most Taiwanese do not favor unification with China, preferring instead the status quo of de facto independence or formal independence. Beijing's announcement of the anti-secession law sparked a demonstration by hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Taipei. President Chen attended the demonstration but did not make a speech, not wanting to provoke Beijing.

Taking a decidedly different approach to improving relations across the Taiwan Strait, in late April and early May, the leaders of two major opposition parties in Taiwan, the KMT and the People First Party (PFP), traveled to China to meet with leaders in Beijing. KMT chairman Lien Chan and PFP chairman James Soong issued statements pledging to work with Beijing to end hostility. Chan's visit marked the first time leaders of the Nationalist and Communist parties have met since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The Taiwanese public responded to the Lien and Soong visits with mixed opinions about their impact on relations with China. Chen has extended invitations for a meeting with Beijing, but Chinese officials refuse to participate in talks with Chen until he accepts the "one-China policy," acknowledging that Taiwan is part of China.

A central focus of Chen's 2004 presidential reelection campaign concerned his plans to reform the constitution, making it "timely, relevant and viable." On August 23, 2004, the Legislative Yuan passed a resolution for constitutional amendments, and in May 2005, members of an ad hoc National Assembly were elected to vote on what Chen termed "the first phase" of constitutional reform. On June 7, 2005, both KMT and DPP members of the National Assembly approved the first set of constitutional changes, writing a national referendum into the constitution, cutting the size of the 225-seat legislature in half, extending legislative terms to four years, and exchanging Taiwan's single-vote, multiple-member-district electoral system for a system of single-member districts with proportional representation (a two-vote system). The new electoral system will be put into use in 2008.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Taiwan 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 maximum of two 4year terms, wields executive power, appoints the prime minister, and can dissolve the legislature. The prime minister is responsible to the national legislature, or Legislative Yuan, the members of which are elected to four-year terms in office. Constitutional amendments are subject to the approval of two-thirds of the legislature followed by a national referendum.

For the first time since it was founded 110 years ago, the KMT held democratically contested elections in July for the post of party chairman. Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou defeated the Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng and was sworn in as the new party chairman in August. Ma has vowed to make reforms within the party itself, fighting internal corruption and recruiting new, younger members.

The administration of President Chen Shiu-bian has been successful in reducing incidents of vote buying and in attacking the links between politicians and organized crime, which flourished under KMT rule. The Ministry of Justice announced in March that since the establishment of the Black Gold Investigation Center in 2000, prosecutors have indicted 534 elected officials for taking bribes, buying votes, or being involved with gangs. Those prosecuted include 23 legislators, 8 city or county commissioners, 15 city or county speakers or vice speakers, 141 city councilors, and 347 township heads or councilors. In Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index, Taiwan was ranked 32 out of 159 countries surveyed, an improvement on last year's ranking of 35 out of 145 countries surveyed.

The Taiwanese press is "vigorous and active," according to the 2004 human rights report issued by the U.S. State Department in February 2005. Print media are completely independent, but electronic media and broadcast television stations are still subject to government influence through the authority of the Government Information Office (GIO) to regulate programming and the radio and television licensing process. Given that most Taiwanese can access approximately 100 cable television stations, the state's influence on the media is, on balance, minimal. Moreover, legislation approved in 2003 bars the government, political parties, and political party officials from owning or running media organizations. The legislation also orders the creation of a National Communications Commission (NCC) to replace the GIO in overseeing the operations of the broadcast media. The legislation to create the NCC as an independent body under the Executive Yuan was passed on October 26. According to DPP legislator Ker Chien-ming, who serves as the director of the DPP's Policy Committee, in order to ensure that the NCC is entirely free from government influence, the caucus will consult legal experts and the Presidential Office on the possibility of filing for a constitutional interpretation of this new legislation.

Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious organizations can choose to register with the government; those that do so may operate tax free. Taiwanese professors and other educators write and lecture freely.

Freedom of assembly and association are well respected. Permits are required for public meetings outdoors, but these are routinely granted. All civic organizations must register with the government, although registration is freely granted. Taiwanese human rights, social welfare, and environmental nongovernmental groups (NGOs) are active and operate without harassment. Trade unions are independent, and most workers in Taiwan have enjoyed the right to free association for many years. However, government employees do not have associational rights, and all teachers, civil servants, and defense industry workers are barred from joining unions or bargaining collectively.

Taiwan's judiciary is 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 2004, the Ministry of Justice established a task force to investigate corruption in the judiciary, and since then, several officials have been brought under investigation as part of the Chen administration's continued crackdown on organized crime, corruption, and bribery. Arbitrary arrest and detention are not permitted, and police generally respect 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. The government is in the process of installing video-recording technology in all interrogation rooms in order to document the processes used. Prison conditions are generally adequate and conform to international norms. Because overcrowding is the biggest problem, expansion projects are in progress at a number of prisons.

Taiwan's constitution provides for the equality of all citizens. The rights of descendents of speakers of Malayo-Polynesian languages are protected by law, and the government has instituted social and educational programs to help the population assimilate into mainstream Taiwanese society. Companies wishing to compete for government contracts are subject to a quota system for the employment of Aborigines and people with physical disabilities. In a measure to increase a sense of community among Taiwanese Aborigines, the first Aboriginal television station was launched in July; it broadcasts a mix of news and features focusing on Aboriginal communities.

Laws protecting privacy are generally followed. Searches without warrants are allowed only in particular circumstances, and a 1999 law imposes strict punishments for illicit wiretapping. With the exception of civil servants and military personnel traveling to China, freedom of movement is generally not restricted. During the Lunar New Year holidays, direct airline flights between Taiwan and mainland China commenced for the first time in 55 years, with nearly 50 flights from Beijing and Shanghai to Taipei. The possibility of opening up these routes permanently is still being discussed. Presently, flights between Taiwan and China must touch down in a third country.

Taiwanese women have made impressive gains in recent years in business but continue to face job discrimination in the private sector. Rape and domestic violence remain problems despite government programs to protect women and numerous NGOs working to improve women's rights. 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. The Taiwan National Police Agency of the Ministry of the Interior recorded 2,101 cases of rape. According to a U.S. State Department report, experts estimate the actual number of rapes at 10 times the official number.