Taiwan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2007

2007 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 declined from 1 to 2 due to concerns about corruption, particularly links among politicians, business, and organized crime.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a resounding defeat in the December 2005 local elections, which reflected growing public frustration with the political gridlock in Taiwan. Following revelations that members of his family and close political aides were being investigated in a series of corruption cases, President Chen Shui-bian was forced to delegate some of his powers to Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang. Despite large-scale, ongoing demonstrations demanding his resignation and approval ratings in the single digits, Chen remained firmly committed to staying on until the end of his term in May 2008.

Located some 100 miles off the southeast coast of China, Taiwan became the home of the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government-in-exile in 1949, when Communist forces drove the KMT off the mainland following two decades of civil war. While Taiwan, still formally known as the Republic of China, is independent in all but name, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers it to be a renegade province and has long threatened to take military action against the island if it declares de jure independence.

The breakthrough for Taiwan’s transition to democracy occurred in 1987, when the KMT’s authoritarian leader, Chiang Ching-kuo, ended 38 years of martial law. The media were subsequently liberalized, and opposition political parties were legalized in 1989. In 1988, Lee Teng-hui became the first native Taiwanese president, breaking the mainland emigres’ stranglehold on politics. In his 12 years in office, Lee oversaw far-reaching political reforms, as well as Taiwan’s first multiparty legislative elections in 1991–92 and the first direct presidential election in 1996. In order to undermine Beijing’s claim that there was only “one China” and that Taiwan was part of it, Lee downplayed the KMT’s historic commitment to eventual reunification with China and promoted a distinct Taiwanese national identity.

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 his vice presidential running mate Lu Hsiu-lien won reelection in March 2004 by a margin of only 0.2 percentage points after both were injured in an apparent assassination attempt. Although the opposition alleged that the shooting was staged in order to gain sympathy votes, two lawsuits challenging Chen’s win were rejected by Taiwan’s high court.

In August 2004, the Legislative Yuan passed a resolution for constitutional amendments. Members of an ad hoc National Assembly were elected to vote on what Chen termed “the first phase” of constitutional reform, and they approved the first set of constitutional changes in June 2005. The reforms wrote a national referendum mechanism into the constitution, cut the size of the 225-seat legislature by half, extended legislative terms to four years, and exchanged 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 was set to be put into use in 2007. However, questions remained about the independence of the Central Election Commission, which was overseeing the redistricting of electoral constituencies, and whether the new system would curtail the continuing problem of “vote buying” and influence peddling during elections.

After failing to capture a majority in the December 2004 legislative elections, the DPP suffered a resounding defeat in the December 2005 local elections, with the KMT gaining control of 14 out of 23 local governments. The results reflected growing public frustration with the political gridlock that had resulted from two different, strongly opposed parties controlling the executive and legislative branches of government. The DPP had also failed to live up to its promise to offer an alternative to “dirty politics,” and instead came to be racked by infighting and corruption scandals. Although the DPP regained some ground at the end of 2006, retaining the seat of mayor of Kaohsiung and doing better than expected in Taipei, the December 9 elections were marred by accusations of vote buying and bribery on both sides. The Ministry of Justice regarded the charges as “very serious issues” and reported that 81 vote buying and bribery cases related to the mayoral elections and 509 cases related to the city councilor elections were under investigation.

In May 2006, Chen was forced to delegate some of his powers to Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang following revelations that members of his family and close political aides were being investigated in a series of corruption scandals. Chen had also been questioned in an ongoing investigation into the misappropriation of funds from his office. Despite large-scale demonstrations demanding his resignation and approval ratings in the single digits, Chen remained firmly committed to serving out his term, which ends in May 2008. He survived two attempts by opposition legislators to recall him in June and November, as they were unable to gain the two-thirds majority necessary to launch constitutional recall procedures, which would entail a public referendum and review by the Council of Grand Justices. Following the corruption indictment of First Lady Wu Shu-chen in November, Chen declared that he would only resign if she were actually convicted.

The December 2005 election defeat also made it clear that the DPP had to formulate a more effective response to the opposition’s conciliatory policy toward the PRC, under which the leaders of the two main opposition parties, the KMT and People First Party, had visited Beijing earlier in 2005. Despite China’s March 2005 promulgation of an antisecession law providing for the use of “non-peaceful means” against Taiwan if efforts to achieve a peaceful reunification were “completely exhausted,” the opposition’s policy had apparently resonated with the electorate. Nevertheless, polls consistently showed that more than 80 percent of Taiwan’s people would prefer to maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations.

In two major speeches in January 2006, Chen risked Beijing’s ire by signaling a return to his pro-independence roots. He called for a referendum on a new constitution by 2008, with no subjects barred from consideration; advocated applying to join the United Nations under the name “Taiwan”; and announced tightened rules on investment in mainland China. Despite intense public and private pressure from the United States not to take further measures that would threaten the status quo, Chen in February abolished the National Unification Council, a largely symbolic act demonstrating that reunification with the mainland was no longer a policy goal of Taiwan’s government.

In contrast to the bellicose rhetoric with which it had previously responded to such moves, the PRC has recently adopted a far more nuanced approach to Taiwanese politics. Beijing was apparently confident that Chen’s pro-independence initiatives had little chance of passing in the KMT-controlled legislature, and that front-runner Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT would soon replace Chen in the 2008 presidential election.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Taiwan is an electoral democracy. 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 four-year 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. The Executive Yuan, or cabinet, consists of ministers appointed by the president on the recommendation of the prime minister. 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 in 1912, the KMT held democratically contested elections for the post of party chairman in 2005. The new leader, popular former Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou, vowed to reform the party, fight internal corruption, and recruit younger members.

The DPP-led administration of President Chen Shiu-bian has pledged to stem incidents of vote buying and to fight improper links among politicians, business, and organized crime, which flourished under KMT rule. The Ministry of Justice announced in September 2006 that since the establishment in 2000 of the Black Gold Investigation Center, a government anticorruption unit, 8,368 people had been indicted, including 451 senior government officials, 528 elected representatives and 3,289 members of the general public However, the DPP’s anticorruption efforts have been undermined and its image tarnished by a series of recent scandals: Chen Shui-bian’s close aide, former deputy secretary-general of the presidential office Chen Che-nan, was facing prosecution for corruption and insider trading, as was Chen’s son-in-law, Chao Chien-ming. In November, First Lady Wu Shu-chen was indicted for corruption in a case involving embezzlement of funds from the presidential office. In Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index, Taiwan was ranked 34 out of 163 countries surveyed.

According to the Asian Network for Free Elections 2006 report on Taiwan’s December 2004 elections, observers in many constituencies “heard reports of widespread vote-buying, and many citizens clearly believe that it is prevalent.” The report notes that “statistics of the Ministry of Justice confirm that it is indeed still a significant issue in Taiwan, although they also indicate some success in cracking down on the practice.”

The Taiwanese press is “vigorous and active,” according to the 2006 human rights report issued by the U.S. State Department. Print media are completely independent, but electronic media and broadcast television stations were subject to government influence through the authority of the Government Information Office (GIO) to regulate programming and the licensing process until mid-2006, when a new oversight body was established. Criticism of the GIO’s handling of license renewal and revocation had ramped up in 2005, when TVBS, a Hong Kong–owned satellite television station known for its coverage of corruption and other government scandals, was fined for violating a law restricting foreign ownership to less than 50 percent. Following charges that the government was restricting press freedom, the GIO refrained from taking further action against TVBS. Given that most Taiwanese can access about 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. It also ordered 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 in October 2005 and the body convened for the first time in February 2006. Although the U.S. State Department report noted that some homosexual rights advocacy groups have reported monitoring and interference in online chat-rooms by the Taiwan authorities, there are generally no restrictions on internet access.

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

Freedom of assembly and association are well respected, as evidenced by the large-scale yet mainly peaceful demonstrations that took place throughout 2006. Permits are required for outdoor public meetings, but these are routinely granted. All civic organizations must register with the government, although registration is freely approved. Taiwanese human rights, social welfare, and environmental nongovernmental organizations (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. A riot by Thai workers in August 2005 highlighted the abysmal living and working conditions of Taiwan’s 300,000 foreign workers, who are neither covered by the Labor Standards Law nor represented by Taiwan’s unions. Foreign workers often fail to report abuses for fear of repatriation and subsequent inability to repay debts to the employment brokers through whom they find work in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s judiciary is independent, and trials are public and generally fair. There is no trial by jury; judges decide all cases. In August 2004, the Ministry of Justice established a task force to probe corruption in the judiciary, and since then, several officials have been brought under investigation. While political influence over the courts has been reduced, there are lingering concerns about the influence of organized crime on the outcome of some cases. Arbitrary arrest and detention are not permitted, and police generally respect this ban.

The police in Taiwan are under civilian control, although according to the 2006 U.S. State Department report, police corruption continues to be 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 techniques used. Prison conditions are generally adequate and conform to international norms. Because overcrowding is the most serious problem, expansion projects are in progress at a number of prisons.

Taiwan’s constitution provides for the equality of all citizens. Apart from the unresolved issue of ownership of ancestral lands by indigenous peoples, 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 employment of the Malayan 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 2005; it broadcasts a mix of news and features focusing on aboriginal communities. When the redistricting of electoral constituencies goes into effect, six seats will be reserved for indigenous peoples.

Laws protecting privacy are generally adhered to. 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 2005 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. Currently, flights between Taiwan and China must touch down in a third country.

Taiwanese women have made impressive gains in business in recent years, but they continue to face job discrimination in the private sector. Rape and domestic violence remain problems despite government programs to protect women and the work of numerous NGOs 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 Ministry of the Interior reported that 6,601 charges of rape or sexual assault were filed in 2006; of these, only 1,825 were tried and resulted in 1,535 convictions. According to the U.S. State Department report, experts estimate the actual number of rapes to be 10 times the official number.