Freedom in the World
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Taiwan held its fifth direct presidential election in January 2012, resulting in a new term for incumbent Ma Ying-jeou of the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT). The KMT also retained control of the parliament in concurrent legislative elections. High-profile corruption cases against former officials continued to work their way through the courts, with a former cabinet secretary general facing indictment and jailed former president Chen Shui-bian receiving an additional 10 years in prison for bribery. Also during the year, private media owners initiated two deals that triggered objections from press freedom advocates, who warned that they could lead to excessive concentration and reduced diversity of content.
In 1949, Taiwan became home to defeated nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) authorities as they fled the mainland in the wake of the Chinese civil war. Still formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), the island is independent in all but name, though it lacks formal recognition by most countries and international organizations. 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 political dominance previously enjoyed by mainland émigrés. Liberalization of the media and legalization of opposition political parties followed 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 of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the 2000 presidential election, ending 55 years of KMT rule. After a narrow reelection victory in 2004, Chen remained in office until 2008, when candidate Ma Ying-jeou recaptured the presidency for the KMT in Taiwan’s second democratic transfer of power.
In January 2012 Ma won a second term, with 51.6 percent of the vote, following a vigorous race against DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who took 45.6 percent. The KMT also retained control of the 113-seat parliament in concurrent legislative elections, though with a reduced majority of 64 seats. The DPP took 40, and the remainder went to independents and smaller parties.
In the first high-profile corruption scandal of the Ma administration, former cabinet secretary general and KMT lawmaker Lin Yi-shih was indicted in October 2012 for allegedly demanding and accepting bribes from a businessman. Separately, former president Chen, who was already serving corruption-related prison sentences handed down in 2010 and 2011, was sentenced to another 10 years in December for bribery. Chen’s supporters and a number of independent observers called for him to be released on medical parole, citing his worsening physical and mental health, but the government said his ailments did not reach the threshold set by law and could be treated in prison or through hospital visits.
Also during the year, two proposed media sales triggered street protests in which press freedom advocates warned against ownership concentration and a decline in diversity of content. In July, media regulators gave conditional approval to a deal in which a Beijing-friendly conglomerate with already significant media holdings would acquire the country’s second-largest cable television system. In November, a Hong Kong–based media group agreed to sell its Taiwan assets to a consortium of Taiwanese businessmen, some of whom have major investments in China. The sale included a popular newspaper known for its nonpartisan and investigative reporting. Both deals were still awaiting final regulatory approval at year’s end.
Having signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) trade pact with Beijing in 2010, the Ma administration continued pursuing closer ties with China in 2012. In October, a former DPP chairman visited Beijing, marking the first time that Taiwan’s proindependence camp discussed cross-strait policy with the Chinese Communist Party. However, China’s ongoing military buildup remained a concern. According to a September report by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, the Chinese military had increased the number of missiles aimed at the island to more than 1,600, from 1,400 the previous year.
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).
Two main parties, the proindependence DPP and the Chinese nationalist KMT, dominate the political landscape. Opposition parties are able to function freely. The combined presidential and legislative elections in January 2012 were deemed free and peaceful, despite the KMT’s clear advantage in campaign funds and partisan polarization in media coverage of the candidates.
Though significantly less pervasive than in the past, corruption remains a problem. Politics and big business are closely intertwined, and instances of vote buying occur at the local level during elections. In October 2012, former Executive Yuan secretary general Lin Yi-shih was indicted for reportedly taking and demanding bribes from a businessman in exchange for a contract in 2010, while he was serving as a KMT legislator. In November, a DPP county magistrate was charged along with 19 other individuals for taking money from several companies to help them secure government contracts. Both cases were pending at year’s end. Former president Chen Shui-bian, who was already serving a sentence of 18 and a half years in prison for corruption, was given another 10-year prison term in December for taking bribes from a financial group while in office. A 2011 indictment against another former president, Lee Teng-hui, for alleged embezzlement and money laundering was still pending at the end of 2012. During the year, an anticorruption agency created in 2011 continued to focus on local officials and civil servants. Separately, the opposition questioned the impartiality of the Special Investigation Division (SID) of the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office, which is administered by the Ministry of Justice and tasked with investigating high-profile cases. In recent years, the SID has pursued a string of prosecutions against former DPP officials, many of whom were eventually acquitted.
Taiwan was ranked 37 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Taiwanese media reflect a diversity of views and report aggressively on government policies and corruption allegations. Following reforms in recent years, broadcast media are no longer subject to licensing and programming reviews by the Government Information Office (GIO), which was formally dissolved in May 2012. However, media outlets display strong party affiliations and grant preferential treatment to their respective candidates. Disputes over the leadership of the Public Television Service (PTS) continued in 2012, following a failed legislative attempt to establish a new board of directors. In June, the Taiwan High Court handed down a final ruling in favor of the former PTS president, who had sued after she was removed by the board in 2010, challenging its assertion that the dismissal was based on poor performance.
After a lengthy review, the National Communications Commission (NCC) in July 2012 conditionally approved a bid by Want Want Broadband, a subsidiary of Want Want Group, to purchase China Network Systems (CNS), the country’s second-largest cable provider. Critics of the proposed merger warned that it could threaten Taiwan’s media pluralism and independence, given Want Want owner Tsai Eng-meng’s considerable business interests in China and his ties to the PRC authorities. Among an array of conditions imposed by the NCC, Tsai and his associates were required to avoid any involvement in the management of a news channel controlled by Want Want and to establish guidelines to ensure the editorial independence of another television network. Also in July, the Taipei district prosecutor’s office issued a final ruling in favor of a reporter who was sued for criminal defamation in 2011 by a KMT lawmaker. The defendant had written an article implying that the lawmaker pressured the NCC to expedite its review of the CNS merger. Final approval for the CNS purchase was still pending at year’s end.
The possible buyout of the Taiwan assets of Next Media Group raised similar concerns regarding the concentration of media ownership during 2012. The prospective seller was Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, a vocal critic of the Chinese authorities. In November, he announced an agreement to sell the group’s print and television outlets in Taiwan to a consortium of Taiwanese businessmen after the company suffered significant losses, due in part to regulatory delays related to its television stations. Among the outlets for sale was Apple Daily, one of the island’s most popular newspapers, known for its nonpartisan and investigative—though at times salacious—reporting. Most of the buyers, including the son of Tsai Eng-meng, had other significant business operations in China and Taiwan, prompting press freedom watchdogs to express concerns that self-censorship on topics related to these business interests would increase after the change in ownership. The deal was awaiting regulatory review at the end of 2012.
Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious organizations that choose to register with the government receive tax-exempt status. In November 2012, the government barred Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, from entering the country for a conference with little explanation, though it denied that Beijing was involved in the decision.
Educators in Taiwan can generally write and lecture without interference. In April 2012, a Taiwanese petrochemical conglomerate sued a university professor for defamation, seeking US$1.4 million in compensation for a report that said one of its factories was emitting a carcinogen. More than 400 Taiwanese scholars signed a petition urging the company to drop the lawsuit, which was pending at year’s end.
Freedom of assembly is generally respected in Taiwan, and several large-scale demonstrations and campaign rallies took place in 2012. However, in December, the Ministry of Education was forced to apologize for a leaked directive in which it appeared to instruct universities to discourage student participation in a grassroots protest movement against the growing media dominance of pro-China tycoons. Taiwan’s Assembly and Parade Law enables police to prosecute protesters who fail to obtain a permit or follow orders to disperse. Despite increased public support, the legislature voted in May 2012 to reject a bill that would have eased the existing law’s permit process and eliminated its criminal penalties.
All civic organizations must register with the government, though registration is freely granted. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) typically operate without harassment.
Trade unions are independent, and most workers enjoy freedom of association. However, military personnel and government employees (with the exception of teachers) are barred from joining unions and bargaining collectively. According to official statistics, there were at least 444,600 foreign workers in Taiwan in 2012. The Employment Services Act, as amended in January 2012, enables foreign workers to extend their employment period to a maximum of 12 years. Migrant workers are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act or the Labor Safety and Health Act. International critics have voiced concerns that household workers in Taiwan are vulnerable to excessive working hours, low wages, and sexual harassment.
Taiwan’s judiciary is independent, and trials are generally fair. The Judges Law, which took effect in July 2012, established a rating and removal system to address concerns about corrupt or incompetent judges. However, civil society groups tasked with screening cases for problematic rulings complained that the Ministry of Justice had denied them access to information on privacy grounds, which hindered them from evaluating citizen complaints. A total of three judges were warned or demoted during the year.
Police largely respect the ban on arbitrary detention, and attorneys are allowed to monitor interrogations to prevent torture. In August 2012, the Taiwan High Court acquitted three men who were sentenced to death in 1992 for the murder of a couple. The court said previous verdicts were based on flawed confessions extracted by torture, adding that the case was closed to further appeals under the amended Criminal Speedy Trial Act of 2011. Taiwan executed six inmates in 2012. Despite international criticism, polls suggested that majority of the population opposed abolition of the death penalty. Watchdog groups have expressed concerns about prison conditions, including overcrowding, limited opportunities for exercise, and lack of access to medical treatment. The issue gained greater public attention during the year due to cases involving high-profile prisoners such as former president Chen.
Police corruption remains a problem in parts of Taiwan. In August 2012, seven officers received sentences ranging from six months to six years in prison after they were convicted of frequenting and leaking information to illegal bars that were targeted for raids; the officers appealed their convictions. In December, prosecutors requested a 15-year jail term for a former Criminal Investigation Bureau chief secretary accused of investing in and protecting an illegal gambling parlor. Both cases were pending at year’s end.
The constitution provides for the equality of all citizens. While social and political divisions between descendants of 1949 mainland émigrés and long-established ethnic Chinese residents have eroded, the island’s non-Chinese indigenous people continue to face social and economic discrimination. Six seats in the legislature are reserved for indigenous people, giving them representation that exceeds their share of the population. A draft Indigenous Autonomy Act that would allow indigenous people to establish tribal offices and councils was still under legislative review at the end of 2012. Disputes over indigenous people’s reserve lands continued. Critics note that some have already been appropriated for large-scale development projects.
Taiwanese law does not allow for asylum or refugee status, and a 2010 bill that would address the problem remains under consideration in the parliament. The measure was proposed as part of official efforts 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. The Taiwanese government ratified their content in 2009, despite the fact that the ROC’s lack of international recognition barred its formal admission as a signatory state.
Amid warming relations and increased travel across the Taiwan Strait, the government launched a program in 2011 that allowed a quota of 500 Chinese tourists per day from select cities to travel to Taiwan without the supervision of organized tour groups. The quota was increased to 1,000 in April 2012. Taiwanese citizens are generally permitted to travel to the PRC without restrictions. However, a Taiwanese citizen was detained and interrogated for nearly two months during a trip to the country in 2012 due to his previous activities in Taiwan aimed at disseminating information in China about the Falun Gong spiritual group, which is banned on the mainland. He was released in August following a campaign on his behalf by Taiwanese politicians and activists.
After the 2012 elections, women held 30 percent of the seats in the national legislature, and a KMT lawmaker became the body’s first female deputy speaker. In January, authorities established the Department of Gender Equality to address disparities within government agencies. Taiwanese women continue to face discrimination in employment and compensation. Rape and domestic violence remain problems, though a law that took effect in January 2012 barred parole for repeat or serious sex offenders. Women from China and Southeast Asian countries, many of whom arrive in Taiwan through fraudulent marriages and deceptive employment offers, are often at risk for sex trafficking and forced labor. However, the government has stepped up efforts to combat human trafficking in recent years.