Taiwan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2010

2010 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 enforcement of anticorruption laws, including the prosecution of former high-ranking officials. However, the country’s civil liberties rating declined from 1 to 2 due to flaws in the protection of criminal defendants’ rights and limitations on academic freedom, including passage of a law restraining scholars at public educational facilities from participating in certain political activities.

Former president Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party was sentenced to life in prison on corruption charges in September 2009, though some observers raised concerns over flaws in the handling of his and other corruption cases. Following criticism of the government’s response to Typhoon Morakot, Prime Minister Liu Chao-shiuan resigned in September. The Kuomintang government continued to improve relations with China during the year, leading to Taiwanese participation in UN-affiliated institutions for the first time since 1971. However, there were also growing concerns over restrictions on free expression, including limitations on academic freedom and pressure to limit criticism of Taiwanese and Chinese government policy.

Taiwan, also referred to sometimes as the Republic of China (ROC), became home to the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government-in-exile in 1949. 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 full 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. Chen narrowly won reelection in March 2004, but the KMT-led opposition retained its majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY) in parliamentary elections later that year, and political gridlock between the executive and legislative branches continued.
The KMT secured an overwhelming majority in the January 2008 legislative elections, taking 81 of 113 seats. The DPP took 27, and the remainder went to independents and smaller parties. The polls were the first to be held under a new electoral system. 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 a reexamination of the reforms. Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT won the March presidential election, defeating the DPP’s Frank Hsieh by a 16-point margin. Both elections were deemed generally free and fair, and an improvement over the 2004 polls, by international observers. They also marked the island’s second peaceful, democratic transfer of power. The DPP’s poor showing was attributed to voters’ economic concerns, frustration at political gridlock, wariness of the DPP’s proindependence policies, and recent corruption scandals involving Chen and other top officials.
Chen was indicted in December 2008, after his immunity had expired, and in September 2009 he was sentenced to life in prison for embezzlement, money laundering, and bribery. Some observers viewed the case as a milestone for the rule of law. However, there were also concerns raised over irregularities and possible political bias, including Chen’s detention before and during trial, prosecutorial leaks to the media, and disciplinary charges against his defense counsel.
The KMT government’s popularity was hurt during 2009 by the effects of the global economic downturn, although the economy had begun to recover by year’s end. Separately, Prime Minister Liu Chao-shiuan was replaced by former KMT secretary general Wu Den-yih in September amidst a broader cabinet reshuffle after the government drew criticism for its slow response to Typhoon Morakot. The natural disaster caused over 500 deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in August.
The DPP won an important parliamentary by-election in September, giving it a quarter of the LY and increased oversight powers, including the ability to petition the Constitutional Court for interpretations of the validity of official policies and actions. The KMT retained a majority of the contested posts in December local elections, but the DPP made notable gains.
The Ma administration continued its policy of establishing closer relations with the PRC government in 2009. Bilateral talks led to agreements on mutual judicial and law enforcement assistance, loosened Taiwanese restrictions on mainland investment, and the removal of PRC objections to Taiwan’s participation—with observer status under the name “Chinese Taipei”—in the World Health Assembly. This enabled Taiwanese representatives to partake in a UN specialized agency event for the first time since 1971.

Though many Taiwanese supported improved economic ties with China, critics argued that the administration was conceding elements of Taiwan’s sovereignty, moving too quickly, and acting with minimal transparency. Several incidents during 2009 stoked fears that growing economic and diplomatic reliance on the PRC would increase pressure to self-censor on issues Beijing deemed sensitive or important. For example, the government in September refused to issue a visa to Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent advocate for the rights of China’s Uighur minority. Meanwhile, Beijing maintained an aggressive legal and military stance on the prospect of eventual Taiwanese independence; an estimated 1,300 missiles remained aimed at the island at year’s end.

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 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 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).
The two main political parties are the proindependence DPP and the Chinese nationalist KMT, which hold a combined 108 of 113 legislative seats and dominate the political landscape. Opposition parties are generally able to function freely, as indicated by the DPP’s relatively strong performance in the December 2009 local elections. Nevertheless, there were credible reports during the year of increased political pressure on government critics and individuals whose activities could displease the Chinese authorities.
Though significantly less pervasive than in the past, corruption remains a feature of political life and an ongoing problem in the security forces. In 2009, the authorities took additional measures to enforce anticorruption laws, resulting in the prosecution of former top officials and the removal of four legislators from office due to vote-buying. Former president Chen Shui-bian and his wife were sentenced in September to life in prison on charges of embezzlement and money laundering; an appeal was pending at year’s end.The authorities also launched investigations of over 200 candidates for alleged vote-buying in the December local elections. Though several KMT members were investigated or punished during the year, some observers raised concerns about selective prosecution of DPP politicians. Among other high-profile cases, a retired high-ranking military officer was indicted in April on bribery and blackmail charges, and five police officers were convicted in December of accepting bribes from casino operators, receiving terms ranging from 12 to 20 years in prison.Taiwan was ranked 37 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In March 2009, Taiwan ratified two UN human rights treaties—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—and passed an implementing law allowing two years to bring relevant regulations and practice into line with the treaties. The United Nations in June refused to formally accept the ratifications, citing the PRC as the only recognized representative of China.
The Taiwanese media reflect a diversity of views and report aggressively on government policies and corruption allegations. Given that most Taiwanese can access about 100 cable television stations, the state’s influence on the media is, on balance, minimal. However, reforms and personnel changes at publicly owned media since 2008 have raised concerns about politicization. A former spokesperson for President Ma Ying-jeou’s electoral campaign was appointed as deputy president of the Central News Agency (CNA) in late 2008, and CNA staff reported receiving directives to alter certain content. Local and international observers noted that criticism of the government in subsequent CNA coverage was markedly toned down. In 2009, legislation requiring government approval of Public Television Service programming was dropped after public protests. However, local press freedom advocates and the Control Yuan criticized subsequent government measures to expand the service’s board and replace its management.
Actions by private media owners, economic pressures resulting from the global financial crisis, and potential PRC influence on free expression were also of concern in 2009. Most private news outlets are seen as sympathetic to one of the two main political parties. Observers reported an increase in paid news placements in print and electronic media during the year. After a businessman with mainland commercial interests purchased the China Times Group in late 2008, several incidents raised concerns of increased editorial pressure to soften criticism of the Ma administration and Beijing; in June 2009, the company threatened to sue several journalists and press freedom advocates for defamation over criticism of its actions in a dispute with the National Communications Commission. In September, the Kaohsiung Film Festival came under pressure—albeit unsuccessful—to not screen a documentary about exiled Uighur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer for fear that it could indirectly harm growing tourism from the mainland. There are generally no restrictions on the internet, which was accessed by over 65 percent of the population in 2009.
Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious organizations that choose to register with the government receive tax-exempt status. Despite pressure from Beijing, the government in September 2009 allowed the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit the island and participate in memorial services for victims of Typhoon Morakot.
Although Taiwanese educators can generally write and lecture freely, the ability of scholars to engage in political activism outside the classroom came under pressure in 2009. The LY in July 2009 passed the Act Governing the Administrative Impartiality of Public Officials, which contained provisions restraining scholars at public academic facilities from participating in certain political activities. In addition, two professors known for their involvement in human rights groups faced prosecution for organizing peaceful protests surrounding the 2008 visit of a Chinese envoy; the cases were still pending at year’s end.
Freedom of assembly is generally respected, and several large-scale demonstrations took place during 2009. Nevertheless, adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is persecuted in China, occasionally faced pressure from local authorities to limit their protests at sites frequented by Chinese tourists. Unlike during his 2008 visit, demonstrations during Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin’s December 2009 trip to Taiwan passed without significant violence between police and protesters. In May, the Control Yuan urged disciplinary measures against Taipei’s police chief and precinct captain for police misconduct during the 2008 clashes, but some observers criticized the body’s decision not to impeach any officials.The Parade and Assembly Law includes restrictions on demonstration locations and permit requirements for outdoor meetings. Although permits are generally granted, at least 26 people were under investigation in 2009 for allegedly failing to obtain a permit or obey police orders to disperse. All civic organizations must register with the government, though registration is freely granted. 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 2009 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. The number of labor disputes increased in 2009 amid the economic downturn. 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.
The judiciary is independent and trials are generally fair. However, prominent cases in 2009 exposed flaws in the protection of criminal defendants’ rights. Several suspects were detained for extended periods prior to conviction, including former president Chen, who was held in custody throughout the year as his trial proceeded. Legal experts also noted other irregularities in Chen’s case, including government efforts to pursue disciplinary measures against his counsel for comments to the media. Prosecutorial leaks to the media continued during the year, sullying defendants’ reputations before trial and conviction. The legal system partially responded to shortcomings in Chen’s case, as the Grand Council of Justices ruled in January that prosecutors’ recording of meetings between the defendant and his counsel was unconstitutional.
Police largely respect the ban on arbitrary detention, and suspects are allowed attorneys during interrogations to prevent abuse. However, three defendants in the high-profile Lu Cheng murder case, who were allegedly tortured in the 1980s to extract a confession, continued to be detained after 22 years as appeals proceeded. They remained in custody at year’s end following a May 2009 High Court ruling. An estimated 187 criminal cases in Taiwan have lasted over 10 years. Although no executions have been carried out since 2005, 44 people remained on death row at year’s end. 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 LY seats are reserved for indigenous people, giving them representation that exceeds their share of the population. Thousands of indigenous people were left homeless by Typhoon Morakot, leading to their resettlement in nearby areas.
Taiwanese law does not allow for the granting of asylum or refugee status. However, amendments to the Immigration Act in 2009 facilitated the granting of residency certificates to over 100 Tibetans and 400 descendants of soldiers left behind in Thailand and Burma in 1949. In December, the Executive Yuan passed a refugee draft bill; it had yet to be debated by the legislature at year’s end.
With the exception of civil servants and military personnel traveling to China, freedom of movement is generally unrestricted. Direct cross-strait air travel has expanded significantly since 2008, though PRC tourists are required to travel in chaperoned groups within Taiwan.

Taiwanese women face private-sector job discrimination and lower pay than men on average. After the 2008 elections, women held 30 percent of the LY seats. 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 January 2009, the legislature passed a law that specifically criminalized sex and labor trafficking while increasing penalties for such offenses.