Taiwan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2012

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A series of convictions were handed down in high-profile corruption cases during 2011, with defendants including judges, a diplomat, and former president Chen Shui-bian. Chen’s predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, was indicted on embezzlement and money-laundering charges. At year’s end, the national media regulator was evaluating a China-friendly media conglomerate’s bid to purchase the country’s second-largest cable television company. Academics and civil society groups warned that the merger could undermine the diversity of Taiwan’s media environment.

Taiwan became home to the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government-in-exile in 1949 and 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 Taiwanese-born president, breaking the mainland émigrés’ 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 won 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 2004, but the KMT-led opposition retained its majority in the legislature.

Thanks in part to a new seat-allocation system adopted in 2005, 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. Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT won that year’s presidential election, which marked the island’s second peaceful, democratic transfer of power. Both elections were deemed generally free and fair.

Chen was indicted on corruption charges in December 2008, and in November 2010 the Supreme Court finalized bribery convictions for him and his wife, sentencing them to 17 and a half years in prison. In October 2011, the High Court overturned a lower court’s acquittal of Chen on separate bribery charges, handing down an additional 18-year sentence. Some observers viewed the prison terms as a positive demonstration that presidents are not above the law, but there were also concerns about possible political bias and procedural irregularities in the earlier stages of the cases.

The latter part of 2011 was dominated by campaigns for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, both scheduled for January 2012. Ma was seeking reelection, and his main challengers were DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female presidential candidate, and James Soong of the People First Party (PFP). At year’s end, the campaigns appeared to be proceeding fairly, though the opposition and some outside observers voiced concerns about potential interference from Beijing and fears of political instability between the January elections and the May presidential inauguration should the DPP win.

On the issue of relations with China, the Ma administration has pursued closer cross-strait ties while continuing to reject unification, independence, and the use of force. Since 2008, bilateral talks have led to agreements on matters including transportation, tourism, food safety, financial cooperation, and intellectual-property protection. In June 2010, both sides signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which was expected to bring about greater economic integration by reducing trade barriers. In 2011, the government launched a program allowing Chinese tourists to visit as individuals rather than strictly in tour groups, and local universities began accepting Chinese students. Though many Taiwanese supported improving economic ties with China, critics argued that the administration was conceding elements of Taiwan’s sovereignty, and moving too quickly with minimal transparency. The country remained under threat from China’s military strength, with over 1,000 missiles aimed at the island. In 2011 the United States agreed to upgrade its older U.S.-built F-16 fighter planes instead of selling newer models—a decision that came as a disappointment for many in Taiwan.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Taiwan is an electoral democracy. The 1946 constitution created a unique government structure comprising five distinct branches (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 consists of 113 members serving four-year terms. 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 parties, the proindependence DPP and the Chinese nationalist KMT, dominate the political landscape. In general opposition parties are able to function freely, as evident from the vibrant campaign ahead of the January 2012 elections.

Though significantly less pervasive than in the past, corruption remains a problem. A number of high-profile indictments and convictions were handed down during 2011, and some were subject to accusations of selective prosecution or political bias. In June, three senior judges were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for taking bribes from a former lawmaker in exchange for an acquittal. A former diplomat was sentenced in August to six months in prison for forging official expense claims, and in October several customs officials were indicted for accepting bribes.

The various corruption cases involving former president Chen Shui-bian, his family, and his associates continued to make their way through the courts in 2011. Although the Taiwan High Court’s October reversal of a lower court’s acquittal added an 18-year prison sentence to Chen’s previous sentence of 17 and a half years on separate bribery convictions,  several banking executives indicted in the case at hand were acquitted. Some observers expressed concerns that the reversal and inconsistent legal arguments between the first and second rulings damaged the image of the judiciary and gave the appearance of political bias.

Another former president, Lee Teng-hui, was indicted in June along with an aide on embezzlement and money-laundering charges. Lee was accused of siphoning US$7.79 million from a secret diplomatic fund in the 1990s to establish a research institute where he now serves as honorary chairman. Lee denied the charges, and the case was pending at year’s end. Critics questioned the timing of the indictment, given Lee’s close association with DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen.

As part of its efforts to combat corruption among mid- and low-level public officials, the government in July established the Agency Against Corruption, to be administered by the Ministry of Justice. It does not have the authority to prosecute ministerial-level officials. Taiwan was ranked 32 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Taiwanese media reflect a diversity of views and report aggressively on government policies and corruption allegations. The state has relatively little influence over the media, though partisan influence is strong. In response to public concerns over “embedded marketing,” in which government entities pay for promotional items that are presented as news, the legislature amended the Budget Law in January 2011 to prohibit the use of public funds for such purposes; the law did not explicitly address “embedded marketing” paid for by PRC entities. Occasional cases of Chinese state-run news appearing in Taiwanese papers continued to surface during the year. In April, China Post, an English-language newspaper in Taiwan, was found to have inserted articles originally published by the PRC’s state-run China Daily without citing their source. An amended Children and Youth Welfare and Rights Protection Act passed in November banned excessively detailed newspaper coverage of rape, suicide, or drug abuse, as well as the publication of photographs depicting violent or erotic subject matter.

Also during 2011, the National Communications Commission (NCC) was weighing a bid by Want Want China Broadband—part of a media conglomerate owned by a businessman with mainland commercial interests and a record of friendly relations with the Chinese government—to purchase China Network Systems (CNS), Taiwan’s second-largest cable television provider. International media watchdogs and local academics urged the regulator to reject the bid, claiming that it could undermine the diversity of news content. A final decision was pending at year’s end. Meanwhile, a KMT legislator sued a reporter for criminal defamation in October after he wrote an article charging that the legislator had pressured the NCC to expedite its decision. Pending a final ruling, the reporter faced a provisional seizure of US$82,600 by the court. Separately, in July the NCC approved a bid by Hong Kong–based Next Media to launch a television news channel in Taiwan, after its owner agreed to omit sexual and violent content; the licensing request had been denied multiple times since 2009.

In another case that raised concerns about increased Chinese influence over Taiwanese media, in April Taiwan’s partly government-owned satellite company Chunghwa Telecom (CHT), which has joint ventures with Chinese state-run counterparts, announced the termination of its contract with New Tang Dynasty Television, a station operated by practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is persecuted in China. The station relied on CHT’s satellite to broadcast uncensored news into the PRC. Following pressure from press freedom groups, Taiwanese officials, and foreign lawmakers, the company renewed the contract in August.

Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious organizations that choose to register with the government receive tax-exempt status.

Educators in Taiwan can generally write and lecture without interference, though the 2009 Act Governing the Administrative Impartiality of Public Officials bars scholars at public academic facilities from engaging in certain political activities.

Freedom of assembly is generally respected, and several large-scale demonstrations and campaign rallies took place in 2011. However, under the Assembly and Parade Law, protesters can be prosecuted for failing to obtain a permit or obey police orders to disperse. A professor charged in 2008 for organizing peaceful protests surrounding a Chinese envoy’s visit was acquitted in November 2011. A constitutional review of the law requested in 2010 was still pending at year’s end.

All civic organizations must register with the government, though registration is freely granted. While nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate without harassment, in August 2011 a human rights association and several grassroots groups assisting farmers in land expropriation cases reported visits by police or Ministry of Justice investigators, who inquired about plans to attend demonstrations or otherwise engage in social activism.

Trade unions are independent, and most workers enjoy freedom of association. However, government employees, military personnel, and defense-industry workers are barred from joining unions or bargaining collectively. An amended version of the Trade Union Act that took effect in May 2011 allows teachers to join or form unions, though they are not allowed to stage strikes. The measure also stipulates that the authorities can no longer dissolve unions for activities that “disturb public order.” Separately in May, the government launched an arbitration committee to handle disputes over improper labor practices.

According to official statistics, 425,660 foreign workers were working in Taiwan in 2011. About half are covered by the Labor Standards Law, but more than 196,000 foreign household workers lack institutional protection from abuses by employers. In February, the government briefly imposed punitive measures, such as tightening visa procedures, on migrant workers from the Philippines after the Philippine government triggered a diplomatic row by extraditing 14 Taiwanese nationals to mainland China to face charges of fraud.

Taiwan’s judiciary is independent, and trials are generally fair. However, in recent years there have been concerns over the selection of judges for high-profile cases and the quality of the disciplinary system amid corruption scandals and controversial rulings in child-abuse cases. In June 2011, the legislature passed a long-stalled Judges Law that would create a complaint and removal mechanism for incompetent judges. Although the law was generally seen as a step forward for judicial reform, civil society groups argued that the disciplinary and evaluation committees did not include enough members from outside the judiciary, while some judges warned that including any external evaluators could undermine judicial independence. The law was scheduled to take effect in 2012.

Police largely respect the ban on arbitrary detention, and attorneys are allowed to monitor interrogations to prevent abuses. However, a number of prominent cases have exposed flaws in the protection of defendants’ rights. In September 2011, a military court posthumously acquitted air force private Chiang Kuo-ching of raping and murdering a five-year-old girl in 1996. He had been executed in 1997 after a confession was extracted by torture as part of a flawed investigation, and in January 2011 another man implicated by forensic evidence was arrested and charged with the murder. Chiang’s family was awarded US$3.4 million in compensation The ruling was issued amid a growing public debate on whether to abolish the death penalty after the government ended a five-year moratorium in 2010. In a separate case in July, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a death-row inmate who had allegedly been tortured to extract a confession for crimes including the 1987 abduction and murder of a nine-year-old boy, and had endured 11 retrials over 23 years.

Corruption in the police force remains a problem in parts of Taiwan. In March 2011, a group of 30 current and retired officers in the northern city of Keelung were arrested for accepting millions of dollars in bribes related to illegal gambling parlors over 18 years. In December, nine officers were convicted and received sentences ranging from two to 13 and a half years.

The constitution provides for the equality of all citizens. Six seats in the legislature are reserved for indigenous people, giving them representation that exceeds their share of the population. Their self-governance is guaranteed under the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, but issues surrounding ownership of ancestral lands and the use of natural resources remain unresolved. A draft Indigenous Autonomy Act introduced in the legislature in May 2011 would allow indigenous people to establish tribal offices and councils, but critics noted that the bill would not delineate autonomous tribal lands or remove the tribal entities from the authority of existing administrative districts.

Taiwanese law does not allow for the granting of asylum or refugee status, though the cabinet drafted a refugee law in early 2010 as part of an effort to honor two UN human rights treaties—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—that Taiwan had ratified in March 2009. The ratifications were rejected by the United Nations, which cited the PRC as the only recognized representative of China. The refugee bill remains pending in the legislature.

Amid warming relations with the PRC, the government launched a program in June 2011 that allows a quota of 500 Chinese tourists per day from select cities to travel to Taiwan without the supervision of organized tour groups.

After the 2008 elections, women held 30 percent of the legislature’s seats. DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, who announced in March 2011 that she would be running for president in January 2012, is Taiwan’s first female candidate for the position. Taiwanese women face job discrimination and lower pay than men on average. Rape and domestic violence remain problems. Local women’s rights groups criticized an amendment to the Social Order and Maintenance Act that took effect in November. Under the amendment, local governments are allowed to set up designated districts in which prostitution is legal. The island continues to be a destination for human trafficking. Some women from China and Southeast Asian countries arrive through fraudulent marriages and deceptive employment offers for purposes of sex trafficking and forced labor.