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Taiwan’s political elite became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals in 2007 that tarnished the reputation of leading figures in both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT). Meanwhile, in the run-up to the 2008 legislative and presidential elections, cross-strait relations and the issue of “Taiwan identity” took center stage, much to the alarm of officials in both Beijing and Washington.
Taiwan became home to the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government-in-exile in 1949, and it is still formally known as the Republic of China (ROC). Although the island is independent in all but name, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers it a renegade province and has threatened to take military action if de jure independence is declared.
Taiwan’s transition to democracy began in 1987, when the KMT ended 38 years of martial law. In 1988, Lee Teng-hui became the first native Taiwanese president, breaking the mainland emigres’ stranglehold on politics. The media were liberalized and opposition political parties legalized in 1989. Lee oversaw Taiwan’s first multiparty legislative elections in 1991–92 and the first direct presidential election in 1996.
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 won reelection in March 2004 by a margin of only 0.2 percentage points.
That year, the Legislative Yuan (LY) passed a resolution on constitutional amendments. 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 mixed system of single-member districts and proportional representation (a two-vote system), to take effect in 2008. However, a dispute over the redistricting of electoral constituencies—including questions about the independence of the Electoral Commission—and bargaining between the premier and the LY speaker that finally broke the impasse in January 2007 raised fears that the new system had been manipulated to the detriment of smaller political parties and would do little to curtail the continuing problem of influence peddling during elections.
There was continued public frustration with the political gridlock that resulted from two different, strongly opposed parties controlling the executive and legislative branches of government. The DPP failed to live up to its promise of an alternative to “dirty politics,” as both leading parties were racked by infighting and corruption scandals. The DPP suffered LY and local electoral setbacks in 2004 and 2005, and although it regained ground in December 2006 local elections, retaining the mayoralty of Kaohsiung and doing better than expected in Taipei, the polls were marred by accusations of vote buying. The Kaohsiung election was initially annulled in June 2007, a decision that was then overturned by the High Court, which upheld the election result in November 2007.
Despite demonstrations demanding his resignation and three recall attempts launched in the wake of corruption scandals, notably the trial of First Lady Wu Shu-chen, President Chen remained committed to serving out his term. In 2007, corruption investigations tainted several members of Taiwan’s political elite, including KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou; DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh and his running mate, former premier Su Tseng-chang; DPP Vice President Annette Lu; and former DPP chairman Yu Shyi-kun.
In the run-up to the LY election in January 2008 and the presidential election in March 2008, the issue of cross-strait relations, particularly “Taiwan identity,” took center stage as Chen continued to risk Beijing’s ire and raise fears in Washington that he was challenging the status quo. After abolishing the National Unification Council in 2006—demonstrating that reunification with the mainland was no longer a policy goal of Taiwan’s government—Chen applied for UN membership under the name Taiwan instead of the ROC in September 2007. He also pushed for a national referendum on UN membership under the name Taiwan that would coincide with the presidential election in 2008. However, the DPP remained deeply divided over Chen’s cross-strait policy. In October 2007, Chen replaced Yu Shyi-kun as party chairman, pitting himself against the more moderate Hsieh in the battle for control over the party’s election platform.
Meanwhile, 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 KMT’s more conciliatory policy toward the mainland continued to resonate with the electorate. Polls consistently showed that more than 80 percent of Taiwan’s people would prefer to maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations.
In contrast to the bellicose rhetoric with which it had previously responded to Chen’s moves, the PRC has adopted a far more nuanced approach to Taiwanese politics in recent years. In October 2007, President Hu Jintao called for a cross-strait “peace agreement,” though still based on the “one-China principle.”
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 (LY), whose 225 members were elected in 2004 to four-year terms. The Executive Yuan, or cabinet, consists of ministers appointed by the president on the recommendation of the prime minister. Beginning in 2008, the LY will consist of 113 members serving four-year terms, with 73 elected in single-member districts and 34 chosen through nationwide proportional representation by party. The six remaining members will be chosen by indigenous people. Constitutional amendments require the approval of two-thirds of the legislature, followed by a national referendum. The two main political parties are the pro-independence DPP and the nationalist KMT.
According to the 2006 Asian Network for Free Elections report on Taiwan’s December 2004 elections, observers “heard reports of widespread vote-buying, and many citizens clearly believe that it is prevalent.” Following the December 2006 elections, the Ministry of Justice 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. The Kaohsiung mayoral election was annulled in June 2007 on the grounds of election interference by the DPP. However, the High Court then overturned the lower court decision and upheld the original election result in November 2007.
The DPP has pledged to stem vote buying and fight improper links among politicians, business, and organized crime, which flourished under KMT rule. It was announced in October 2007 that, since the establishment in 2000 of the Black Gold Investigation Center, a government anticorruption unit that was replaced by the Special Investigation Panel in January 2007, a total of 10,518 people had been prosecuted, including 605 senior government officials, 613 elected representatives, and 4,922 civil servants. However, the DPP’s anticorruption image has been tarnished by a series of scandals, notably the conviction of President Chen Shui-bian’s close aides and son-in-law; the ongoing trial of First Lady Wu Shu-chen; and investigations involving DPP Vice President Annette Lu, former DPP chairman Yu Shyi-kun, DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh, and his running mate, former premier Su Tseng-chang. In Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, Taiwan was ranked 34 out of 180 countries surveyed.
The Taiwanese press is vigorous and active. 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. That arrangement ended in early 2006, when the National Communications Commission (NCC) was established. The NCC’s independence was subsequently questioned, however, and provisions of its founding legislation were declared unconstitutional by the Council of Grand Justices in June 2006 because of requirements for partisan membership selection. The commission remained active during 2007, and following the legislature’s amendment of the law in December, new appointments are to be made in 2008 by the premier, with parliamentary approval. Government and political parties were required to divest their radio and broadcast interests by December 2005, and the NCC came under fire in June 2007 for having approved the sale of the KMT’s Broadcasting Corporation of China (BCC) to former legislator Jaw Shau-kong. The government refused to recognize the sale, and Jaw quit as BCC chairman. Given that most Taiwanese can access about 100 cable television stations, the state’s influence on the media is, on balance, minimal. 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.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected, as evidenced by the large-scale yet mainly peaceful demonstrations that took place throughout 2007. Permits are required for outdoor public meetings and are generally granted. However, Shih Ming-teh and 15 other organizers of the anti-Chen rallies held in 2006 have been indicted for breaking the Assembly Law. They claim to have filed the necessary applications, which were only denied after it was too late to call off the rallies. All civic organizations must register with the government, although registration is freely approved. Taiwanese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on human rights, social welfare, and the environment are active and operate without harassment.
Trade unions are independent, and most workers in Taiwan enjoy the right to free association. 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. According to the 2007 U.S. State Department human rights report, union leaders have been dismissed without due cause and unions may be dissolved if their activities “disturb public order.” Other restrictions undermine collective bargaining and make it difficult to strike legally.
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 employment brokers.
Taiwan’s judiciary is independent, and trials are public and generally fair. There is no trial by jury; judges decide all cases. 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 U.S. State Department report, police corruption continues to be a problem. Suspects are allowed attorneys during interrogations specifically to prevent abuse in custody. 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.
Taiwan’s constitution provides for the equality of all citizens. Apart from the unresolved issue of ownership of ancestral lands, the rights of indigenous people are protected by law. The first aboriginal television station was launched in July 2005. When the redistricting of electoral constituencies goes into effect in 2008, six LY seats will be reserved for indigenous people.
With the exception of civil servants and military personnel traveling to China, freedom of movement is generally unrestricted. During the 2005 Lunar New Year holidays, direct airline flights between Taiwan and mainland China commenced for the first time in 55 years; similar flights have taken place on subsequent holidays. The possibility of opening up these routes permanently is still being discussed. Currently, normal 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, resulting in 1,535 convictions. Experts estimate the actual number of rapes to be 10 times the official number.