Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Taiwan’s civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to demonstrations of media independence and academic freedom in recent years, including in media coverage of the 2016 elections.
Taiwan’s vibrant and competitive democratic system has allowed three peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since 2000, and protections for civil liberties are generally robust. Ongoing concerns include Chinese efforts to influence policymaking and some sectors of the economy, foreign migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation, and disputes over the land and housing rights of both ordinary citizens and Taiwan’s indigenous people.
- The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a sweeping victory in January general elections, capturing both the presidency and a majority in the Legislative Yuan.
- A scandal over weak oversight of the state-controlled Mega Financial Holdings Company forced the head of Taiwan’s top financial regulator to step down in October.
- Also in October, the DPP introduced draft legislation that would formally recognize same-sex marriage.
Amid widespread dissatisfaction with a slowing economy and the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) government’s policy of closer ties with China, voters handed the opposition DPP a resounding victory in January general elections. Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP’s chairperson, became the country’s first female president, and the party won a substantial legislative majority.
The new government subsequently made commitments to better protect the rights of marginalized and vulnerable populations, including indigenous communities, foreign migrant workers, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. The administration also faced concern over a perceived lack of oversight of state-controlled financial institutions and the need for a reform of housing laws to secure residency rights in the context of development projects.
The president, who is directly elected for up to two four-year terms, appoints the premier with the consent of the national legislature (Legislative Yuan), which consists of 113 members serving four-year terms. The Executive Yuan, or cabinet, is made up of ministers appointed by the president on the recommendation of the premier. 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). Direct elections for both the president, held since 1996, and for the legislature, held since 1991, have been considered generally free.
In the January 2016 general elections, Tsai of the DPP won 56 percent of the presidential vote, followed by the KMT’s Eric Chu Li-lun with 31 percent and James Soong Chu-yu of the People First Party (PFP) with 12.8 percent. Tsai’s margin of victory was the largest since presidential elections were first held in 1996. The DPP also won 68 out of 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan, leaving the KMT with 35, the New Power Party with 5, PFP with 3, and the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union and an independent with 1 seat each.
Elections in Taiwan are administered by the Central Election Commission. The law mandates that no political party may hold more than one-third of the seats on the commission. Since 2007, instances of vote buying and other electoral irregularities have gradually waned thanks to tighter enforcement of anticorruption laws.
Taiwan’s multiparty system features vigorous competition between the two major parties, the KMT and the DPP. Opposition parties are able to function without interference.
The KMT, which governed Taiwan as an authoritarian, one-party state for decades until democratic reforms took hold in the 1980s and 90s, retained a considerable financial advantage over its rivals in recent years, benefitting from the fact that the business sector generally favored the party’s China-friendly policies. In contrast, the DPP has traditionally favored greater independence from China. The DPP’s victory in the 2016 presidential and legislative elections was seen as a public rejection of the KMT’s economic management and approach to relations with China. The results also led to Taiwan’s third peaceful transfer of power between parties, after previous handovers in 2000 and 2008.
Taiwan’s constitution grants all citizens the right to vote, including members of 16 indigenous tribes, who make up roughly 2 percent of the population. Six seats in the Legislative Yuan are reserved for indigenous candidates elected by indigenous voters. An additional two indigenous candidates won seats in 2016 through normal party-list voting.
Though consideration of China necessarily plays a significant role in Taiwanese politics, elected officials in Taiwan are free to set and implement policy without undue interference from foreign or other unelected actors.
Corruption is significantly less pervasive than in the past, but it remains a problem. Politics and big business are closely intertwined, leading to malfeasance in government procurement. In August 2016, the state-controlled financial institution Mega Financial Holding Company was heavily fined for breaching U.S. laws against money laundering, prompting concerns over the Taiwan government’s capacity to independently oversee the firm’s financial compliance. The chairman of the Financial Supervisory Commission, Taiwan’s top financial regulator, resigned in October as a result of the scandal. Also in August, seven Taiwan Railways Administration officials were convicted and sentenced for accepting sex-related services in exchange for business contracts over six years.
Taiwan’s media reflect a diversity of views and report aggressively on government policies and corruption allegations, though many outlets display strong party affiliation in their coverage. Beijing has sought to exert influence on Taiwanese media. A number of media owners have significant business interests in China or rely on advertising by Chinese companies, leaving them vulnerable to pressure and prone to self-censorship on topics considered sensitive by the Chinese government. In recent years, Taiwanese regulators have successfully resisted proposed mergers that would have placed important media outlets in the hands of businessmen with significant ties to China, and the Taiwanese press was able to report freely on the 2016 elections. The government does not restrict internet access.
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, and past practices—including prosecutions—aimed at restricting academics’ political activism have been rare in recent years. Private discussion is open and free, and there were no reports of the government illegally monitoring online communication.
Taiwan’s Assembly and Parade Act, passed in 1988, enables authorities to prosecute protesters who fail to obtain a permit or follow orders to disperse, but freedom of assembly is largely respected in practice. In recent years, there has been an increase in youth-led demonstrations. More than 30 people were arrested during a July 2015 protest over proposed changes to the high school curriculum that were seen by some as pro-Beijing, but only five of the student protesters were eventually convicted in September 2016 on obstruction of justice and coercion charges linked to a break-in at the Ministry of Education, and none faced jail time. Separately, in May 2016, the new government dropped legal complaints against 126 student protesters who had occupied a government building as part of the so-called Sunflower Movement in 2014, which was prompted by concerns about a KMT-backed trade agreement with China.
All civic organizations must register with the government, though registration is freely granted. Nongovernmental organizations typically operate without harassment.
Trade unions are independent, and most workers enjoy freedom of association, though the government strictly regulates the right to strike. Among other barriers, teachers, workers in the defense industry, and government employees are prohibited from striking.
Taiwan’s judiciary is independent, and trials are generally fair. Police largely respect the ban on arbitrary detention, and attorneys are allowed to monitor interrogations to prevent torture. After a four-year moratorium on the use of the death penalty, the government reinstated the practice in 2010. Condemned inmates, after being sedated, are shot from behind at close range. Family members of inmates facing the death penalty are typically not informed about scheduled dates of executions. Authorities executed one inmate in 2016, down from six in 2015.
The constitution provides for the equality of all citizens, though the island’s indigenous people continue to face social and economic discrimination, leading to high unemployment levels, lower wages, and barriers to education and social services. In August 2016, President Tsai offered the government’s first formal apology to indigenous people for “the suffering and injustice you endured over the past 400 years.” She also announced the launch of a justice commission to investigate their historical mistreatment. Nonetheless, disputes over indigenous lands continue amid stalled efforts to pass legislation on indigenous autonomy.
Taiwanese law prohibits discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation, and violence against LGBT people is adequately addressed by police.
Taiwanese law does not allow for asylum or refugee status. However, in July 2016 a long-awaited draft bill to address the problem passed its first review by the Internal Administration Committee of the Legislative Yuan.
Taiwan’s residents enjoy freedom of movement, and Taiwanese authorities have gradually eased restrictions on travel between Taiwan and China in recent years. A program launched in 2011 allows Chinese tourists to travel to Taiwan without supervision, with a cap on the daily number raised to 5,000 in 2015. However, Chinese authorities reportedly moved to reduce cross-strait tourism after the DPP government took office in 2016.
Urban renewal projects and conversions of agricultural land for industrial or residential use have been criticized for unfairly displacing residents. In August 2016, demonstrations were held to protest a lack of transparency and public consultation concerning planned demolitions of homes and local markets to make way for three major development projects in the city of Kaohsiung. Evictions and demolitions continued through October, even as protests persisted. Housing advocates have called for legal amendments to clarify residency rights, including protections against forced eviction, and establish an appeals system to review alleged violations.
The constitution guarantees women equal rights, though Taiwanese women continue to face discrimination in employment and compensation. The 2016 elections increased women’s overall political representation, with female candidates winning the presidency and a record 38 percent of seats in the Legislative Yuan. In October, the DPP introduced a draft bill in the Legislative Yuan that would formally recognize same-sex marriage. Amendments to the Nationality Act adopted in December eased regulations that limit access to citizenship for the foreign spouses of Taiwanese nationals.
Over 600,000 foreign migrants work in Taiwan, with a substantial number working as domestic helpers and fishermen; most come from Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. Foreign domestic workers and fishermen are not covered by Taiwan’s Labour Standards Act, meaning they are excluded from minimum wage, overtime, and paid leave protections. As a result, foreign workers in these and other fields are at substantial risk of exploitation, with widespread accounts of unpaid wages, poor working conditions, and physical and sexual abuse, as well as extortion and fraud at the hands of recruitment and brokerage agencies. In July 2016, President Tsai publicly committed to improving protections for foreign workers, and the government promulgated new legislation that established stricter rules and stronger punishments to combat worker exploitation by Taiwanese fishing companies.