Freedom in the World
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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The opposition Kuomintang took power after winning legislative and presidential elections in January and March 2008, respectively. The outgoing president, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party, was subsequently indicted on corruption charges, as were other members of his administration. Relations with China improved under the new government, which established direct transport links with the mainland. However, a Chinese envoy’s November visit was accompanied by some restrictions on free expression and assembly, culminating in violent clashes between police and protesters.
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 proindependence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), ended 55 years of KMT rule, though the KMT maintained a majority in parliament. Chen won reelection in March 2004 by a margin of only 0.2 percentage points. With the KMT retaining its majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY) in parliamentary elections later that year, the political gridlock between the DPP-led executive and the KMT-dominated legislature continued.
Also in 2004, the 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, multimember-district electoral system for a mixed system of single-member districts and proportional representation (a two-vote system).
The first legislative elections under the new system were held in January 2008. The KMT secured an overwhelming majority with 81 of 113 seats, while the DPP took 27 and the remainder went to independents and smaller parties. The constitutional changes had worked against the interests of smaller parties, contributing to political polarization. Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT won the March presidential election, defeating the DPP’s Frank Hsieh, 58 percent to 42 percent. Both elections were deemed generally free and fair by international observers and marked the island’s second peaceful, democratic transfer of power. In concurrent referendums, low voter turnout scuttled proposals to seek membership in the United Nations, either as “Taiwan” or “Republic of China.”
In addition to concerns over the economy, frustration at the political gridlock, and desire for status quo in cross-strait relations, the DPP’s poor electoral performance was attributed in part to a spate of corruption scandals involving Chen and other top officials. After the outgoing president’s immunity expired in May, prosecutors launched an investigation into his involvement in existing money laundering and corruption cases. He was ultimately indicted in December. Although KMT politicians were also targeted in 2008, a spurt of investigations and pretrial detentions of DPP politicians late in the year raised concerns about selective prosecution.
Meanwhile, in a shift from Chen’s proindependence policies, the new Ma administration took steps to establish closer relations with the PRC government. These included the signing of agreements that enabled direct cross-strait transport links and increased Chinese tourism in Taiwan. Though many Taiwanese supported improved economic ties with China, some argued that the administration was conceding elements of Taiwan’s sovereignty and acting with minimal transparency. Tensions came to a head when PRC envoy Chen Yunlin visited in November to sign four agreements on transport links and food safety. The visit was accompanied by a significant police presence, reports of restrictions on free expression, and large-scale protests, during which both police and protesters engaged in violence, resulting in the injury of dozens of people. At year’s end, observers were watching how Taiwan’s democratic institutions would respond to the violent episode that sparked considerable concern at home and abroad.
While relations between the Taiwan and PRC governments improved after the elections, Beijing maintained an aggressive legal and military stance on the prospect of eventual Taiwanese independence; an estimated 1,300 missiles remained aimed at Taiwan at year’s end. Beijing also continued to limit Taiwan’s international contacts in early 2008. In January, Malawi ended its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, reportedly due to financial incentives from China, while Taiwanese journalists were denied UN accreditation to cover the annual World Health Assembly in May, apparently under PRC pressure.
Taiwan is an electoral democracy. The 1946 constitution, adopted while the KMT was in power on the mainland, created a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system and unique structure with five branches of government (yuan). The president, who is directly elected for up to two four-year terms, wields executive power, appoints the prime minister, and can dissolve the legislature. The Executive Yuan, or cabinet, consists of ministers appointed by the president on the recommendation of the prime minister. The prime minister is responsible to the national legislature (Legislative Yuan), which, under constitutional amendments that took effect in 2008, consists of 113 members serving four-year terms; 73 members are elected in single-member districts, and 34 are chosen through nationwide proportional representation. The six remaining members are chosen by indigenous people. The three other branches of government are the judiciary (Judicial Yuan), a watchdog body (Control Yuan), and a branch responsible for civil service examinations (Examination Yuan). Constitutional amendments require the approval of two-thirds of the legislature, followed by a national referendum.
The two main political parties are the proindependence DPP and the nationalist KMT. In August 2008, the Taiwanese Communist Party was allowed to register for the first time, following removal of a ban on associations advocating “communism” or “division of national territory.”
The Asian Network for Free Elections, an independent observer organization, hailed the March 2008 presidential election as an improvement over the 2004 campaign, during which a presidential and vice-presidential candidate were shot and wounded. However, the group raised concerns about compromised ballot secrecy in referendum voting, as well as presidential campaign spending that exceeded the legal limits. The January parliamentary elections were also seen as generally fair, although the fact that the KMT and DPP respectively secured 72 percent and 24 percent of the seats after winning 51 percent and 37 percent of the votes prompted some calls for reexamination of the new electoral procedures. The parliamentary elections were also marred by allegations of vote-buying; prosecutors were reportedly investigating 5,189 cases ahead of the elections, and in January, for the first time, a newly elected lawmaker was indicted for vote-buying.
Several high-level government figures were involved in corruption scandals during the year.The DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, whose presidential term ended in May 2008, admitted in August that he had not fully declared past campaign funds; he was indicted on other charges of money laundering and misuse of public funds in December. Among other high-profile cases, eight former and sitting lawmakers from various parties were indicted in January for allegedly accepting bribes; a scandal involving the embezzlement of nearly $30 million aimed at establishing diplomatic ties with Papua New Guinea was exposed in May; and the former director of the Justice Ministry’s Investigation Bureau was sentenced to 10 years in prison in December for withholding classified information related to Chen’s case. The indictment of a growing number of DPP officials led some observers to raise concerns about selective prosecution toward the end of the year. In a positive development, the watchdog Control Yuan began functioning in July after a three-year hiatus stemming from a Chen-KMT stalemate over appointments to the body. Taiwan was ranked 39 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Taiwanese media reflect a diversity of views and report aggressively on government policies and corruption allegations. Nevertheless, political polarization poses a challenge to press freedom, with most major news outlets seen as sympathetic to one of the two main parties. Some efforts to increase government control over publicly owned media emerged during 2008, with lawmakers freezing half the budget of the Taiwan Public Television Service for much of the year; in December, parliamentary committees approved resolutions requiring government item-by-item approval of programming budgets, but the bill was pending at year’s end. However, a reorganized National Communications Commission began work in August after a 2006 court ruling struck down its previous, partisan appointment system. Physical violence against journalists is rare, but several reporters were injured while covering protests during Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin’s visit in November. Police reportedly detained a documentary filmmaker for about an hour after she attempted to film protests outside Chen’s hotel; she apparently sustained minor injuries. Also in November, the China Times Group, one of Taiwan’s biggest media syndicates, was bought by a businessman with major interests in the PRC, raising the prospect of self-censorship by the media group in the future.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 is generally respected, as evidenced by several large-scale and mainly peaceful demonstrations that took place during 2008. Nevertheless, adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement came under pressure from local authorities in June to limit protests over the group’s repression in China at sites frequented by Chinese tourists. During Chen Yunlin’s visit in November, police in several cases restricted protesters from displaying Taiwanese and Tibetan flags, expressions of Taiwanese national identity, or critiques of the Chinese regime. Incidents of police brutality were reported, though demonstrators also engaged in violence, and dozens of people were injured. A probe into police misconduct by the Control Yuan was ongoing at year’s end.The Parade and Assembly Law includes restrictions on demonstration locations and permit requirements for outdoor meetings. Although such permits are generally granted, some individuals have been indicted in recent years for holding peaceful demonstrations without permission. The government proposed amendments to the law which passed initial approval in the legislature in December, though some observers viewed these as inadequate in key respects. 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 enjoy freedom of association. However, government employees and defense-industry workers are barred from joining unions or bargaining collectively. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 human rights report, unions may be dissolved if their activities “disturb public order,” while other restrictions undermine collective bargaining and make it difficult to strike legally. In 2008, as many as a third of Taiwanese companies ordered employees to take unpaid leave as the global downturn set in, sparking worker protests.
Taiwan’s 350,000 foreign workers are not covered by the Labor Standards Law or represented by unions, and many decline to report abuses for fear of deportation. During the year, the Council of Labor Affairs made several improvements to regulations governing the payment of foreign workers and took measures to facilitate their ability to change employers.
The judiciary is independent, and trials are generally fair. There is no trial by jury; judges decide all cases. Arbitrary arrest and detention are not permitted, and police generally respect this ban. Nevertheless, suspects can be detained for up to four months without charges; the provision was used in multiple corruption cases during 2008, including that of former president Chen. Legal experts also noted that Chen’s case was transferred among different judges in late December in a manner that seemed to circumvent the usual random assignments and gave the appearance of political influence. Amnesty International estimatedthat 82 people were on death row at year’s end, although no executions have been carried out since 2005.
Police corruption continues to be a problem. Suspects are allowed attorneys during interrogations specifically to prevent abuse. Searches without warrants are allowed only in particular circumstances, and a 1999 law imposes strict punishments for illicit wiretapping.
The 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. Six Legislative Yuan seats are reserved for indigenous people under electoral reforms that took effect in 2008. Taiwanese law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status; PRC immigrants are more likely than others to be repatriated or held in lengthy detention.
With the exception of civil servants and military personnel traveling to China, freedom of movement is generally unrestricted. Beginning in July 2008, ordinary Chinese citizens were able to take direct charter flights to Taiwan on weekends. Previously, the flights were limited to four holiday weekends and only to select individuals. Following the signing of a new agreement in November, direct cross-strait flights were extended to seven days a week.
Taiwanese women continue to face private-sector job discrimination and lower pay than men on average. After the 2008 elections, women held 30 percent of the Legislative Yuan seats, an increase from 22 percent in the previous legislatures. Rape and domestic violence remain problems despite government programs to protect women and the work of numerous NGOs to improve women’s rights. Although authorities can pursue such cases without the victims formally pressing charges, cultural norms inhibit many women from reporting the crimes. Taiwan is both a source and destination for trafficked women. In November 2008, the Executive Yuan approved a draft Anti-Human Trafficking Law, but it had yet to be passed by the Legislative Yuan at year’s end.