Freedom in the World
The ruling Kuomintang won three of the five mayoral posts at stake in November 2010 municipal elections, with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party securing the other two. Also in November, the Supreme Court finalized former president Chen Shui-bian’s conviction on bribery charges, sentencing him to 17 and a half years in prison. Separately, the early dismissal of the leadership of the Public Television Service raised concerns about the independence of publicly funded media.
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.
In the first of several cases, Chen was indicted on corruption charges in December 2008, and in September 2009 he and his wife were sentenced to life in prison. An appeals court reduced the sentence to 20 years in June 2010. In November, the Supreme Court finalized two of the couple’s bribery convictions, sentencing them to 17 and a half years in prison. The other charges were sent back to a lower court for a retrial. Separately, Chen was acquitted of embezzlement charges in June and bribery charges in November. Both cases were on appeal at year’s end.Some observers viewed the prison term 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 case, such as the switching of judges during the initial trial, Chen’s detention before and during trial, prosecutorial leaks to the media, and the government’s attempt to impose disciplinary measures on Chen’s defense counsel. These problems were largely absent during the subsequent appeals process.
On the issue of relations with China, the Ma administration proclaimed a policy of pursuing closer cross-strait ties while continuing to reject unification, independence, and the use of force. Bilateral talks led to agreements on various matters, including transportation, tourism, food safety, financial cooperation, and intellectual-property protection. An agreement on mutual judicial and law enforcement assistance began to yield results in 2010, including repatriation of criminals across the strait and cooperation in disrupting a large telephone-fraud ring. In June, both sides signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which was expected to bring about greater cross-strait economic integration by reducing trade barriers.
Though many Taiwanese supported improving economic ties with China, critics argued that the administration was conceding elements of Taiwan’s sovereignty, moving too quickly, and acting with minimal transparency. The executive branch did not submit any of the first 12 cross-strait agreements for substantive legislative review, but the ECFA was sent to the legislature in July 2010, and the KMT ultimately secured its approval over DPP objections in August. Successive opposition attempts to initiate referendums on the ECFA were rejected in June and August by the executive branch’s Referendum Review Committee. Critics questioned the committee’s independence and claimed that the committee’s decisions were based on political rather than legal considerations.
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 political parties, the proindependence DPP and the Chinese nationalist KMT, dominate the political landscape. Although opposition parties are generally able to function freely,the KMT currently has an overwhelming majority in the Legislative Yuan, which has exacerbated political polarization.
When the KMT pushed through the Local Government Act in January 2010, lawmakers from the two sides engaged in a physical scuffle. The law allowed dozens of elected officials whose townships were to be subsumed within fournewly enlarged or upgraded cities to automatically stay on as appointed officials until 2014. The DPP argued that the mayors of the reorganized cities, to be elected in November, should be able to appoint officials of their choice, and that the bill would buy the KMT electoral support from the local politicians who benefited. Ultimately, the KMT won three of the five mayoral posts at stake in November, while the DPP took the remaining two.While acts of violence are not common in Taiwan’s election campaigns, Sean Lien, son of former KMT party chairman Lien Chan, was shot the night before the election, casting a shadow over the municipal elections.
Though significantly less pervasive than in the past, corruption remains an ongoing problem. In addition to the prison terms for former president Chen Shui-bian and his wife, anticorruption efforts in 2010 yielded the September conviction of eight former and incumbent lawmakers across party lines. Several judges, prosecutors, and lawyers were detained on bribery charges. A former high-ranking navy officer was sentenced to 15 years in prison in August for taking kickbacks in a 1991 deal to buy French warships. The Ministry of Justice launched a comprehensive investigation regarding the November municipal elections, resulting in the indictment of over 450 people on suspicion of vote buying or accepting bribes by year’s end. While several KMT members were investigated or punished for corruption during the year, concerns about selective prosecution of DPP politicians were raised again when prosecutors cleared Wang Jin-pyng, the parliament speaker and former KMT vice chairman, of embezzlement in May, even as similar cases involving DPP politicians were still pending in court. Taiwan was ranked 33 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 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. However, apparent government attempts to exert control over the Public Television Service (PTS) in 2009 continued in 2010, raising concerns about politicization. After a court granted the Government Information Office’s request for an injunction that prevented the chairman of the PTS board and six other directors from exercising their duties, the remaining directors dismissed the service’s president and executive vice president in September, just three months before their three-year terms expired and two months before the municipal elections. Also during the year, the National Communication Commission continued to reject applications by Hong Kong–based media firm Next Media to launch a television news channel, citing the company’s use of speculative and potentially misleading computer-animated videos to supplement its news reports.
Many observers have raised concerns about self-censorship in response to the PRC’s increased political and economic influence in Taiwan. The editor in chief of the China Times, owned by a businessman with mainland commercial interests, was replaced in January 2010 after a headline story reportedly upset Chinese officials. Want Daily, a member of the China Times Group, omitted mention of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre in its June 4, 2010, recounting of historic cross-strait events. In a separate but related phenomenon, watchdog groups have noted a sharp increase in “embedded marketing,” in which PRC entities, Taiwanese government agencies, and private companies pay for promotional items that are presented as news. A senior China Times reporter resigned in December 2010 to protest the practice.
Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious organizations that choose to register with the government receive tax-exempt status.
Although Taiwanese educators can generally write and lecture freely, the 2009 Act Governing the Administrative Impartiality of Public Officials bars scholars at public academic facilities from engaging in certain political activities. In 2010, there were reports of increased pressure on government critics. A researcher at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research was reportedly transferred due to his criticism of the ECFA and ultimately resigned in June. In October, the Education Ministry urged National Taiwan University administrators to curb political discussions on a widely popular online bulletin-board system.
Freedom of assembly is generally respected, and several large-scale demonstrations took place during 2010. Although permits for outdoor meetings are generally granted, many people have faced prosecution under the Assembly and Parade Law for failing to obtain a permit or obey police orders to disperse. The acquittal of all defendants in a high-profile case dating to 2006 was upheld by an appeals court in April 2010, and a professor facing charges for organizing peaceful protests surrounding the 2008 visit of a Chinese envoy was seeking a constitutional review of the law at year’s end.
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, military personnel, and defense-industry workers are barred from joining unions or bargaining collectively. Under an amendment to the Trade Union Act passed in June 2010, teachers for the first time can form and join labor unions, though they are still barred from striking, and the authorities can no longer dissolve unions for activities that “disturb public order.” The legislation was expected to come into effect in 2011, along with two other revised laws meant to strengthen workers’ rights on collective bargaining and dispute resolution.
Foreign workers have the right to form and join unions. More than half of Taiwan’s 370,000 foreign workers are covered by the Labor Standards Law, but about 170,000 foreign household workers are not. Abuses by employers are not uncommon, and many foreign workers decline to report them for fear of deportation. In September 2010, six undocumented workers from Indonesia were killed in a construction accident, drawing attention to the estimated 30,000 migrant workers who lack legal status. The Council of Labor Affairs faced criticism in October for raising bounties for the capture of foreign workers who fled their authorized employers, and labor groups pressed the government to allow such workers to change jobs at will.
The judiciary is independent, and trials are generally fair. However, a series of judicial corruption scandals in 2010 led to the resignations of the president and vice president of the Judicial Yuan. Several senior judges were detained, and some were suspended and referred to the Control Yuan for further investigation and disciplinary action. Separately, a number of lenient sentences for child molesters prompted public demands for the removal of incompetent judges. A long-stalled judicial reform law regulating judges’ selection, evaluation, and removal was sent to the legislature but had yet to be reviewed at year’s end.
Police largely respect the ban on arbitrary detention, and attorneys are allowed to monitor interrogations to prevent abuse. However, a number of prominent cases, including former president Chen’s first trial, exposed flaws in the protection of criminal defendants’ rights. Those charged with felonies have often been detained for extended periods pending trial and conviction, and the jails in which they are held are frequently criticized for overcrowding. Prosecutorial leaks to the media continued during 2010, sullying defendants’ reputations before their cases were decided in court.
Among other high-profile cases that touched on these issues, two defendants who were allegedly tortured to extract a confession for the 1987 abduction and murder of a nine-year-old boy, Lu Cheng, remained in detention in 2010 after 22 years of repeated retrials and appeals. The three defendants in the 1991 “Hsichih Trio” murder case were found not guilty again by an appeals court; for the first time in this case, the court rejected confessions found to have been extracted through torture. Separately, the Control Yuan censured law enforcement authorities in May over a 1996 case in which the defendant was executed for raping and murdering a young girl, but was later found to have confessed under torture as part of a flawed investigation. Concerns about the death penalty rose during the year after four of Taiwan’s 44 death-row inmates were executed, ending a de facto moratorium of four years. The unexpected and secretive nature of the executions prompted questions about whether all procedural requirements had been met.
In response to such problems, the Council of Grand Justices declared unconstitutional a legal provision that denied acquitted defendants state compensation for wrongful detention under certain circumstances. In addition, the legislature in April passed the Criminal Speedy Trial Act to set a cap on the detention periods in felony cases, and in June approved an amendment to the Criminal Procedural Law to guarantee arrestees’ right to meet and hold one-hour confidential discussions with their lawyers.
In December 2010, the Presidential Office launched a human rights commission tasked with establishing human rights policy and drafting annual reports in accordance with 2009 legislation that incorporated key international human rights treaties into Taiwanese law.
The constitution provides for the equality of all citizens. Apart from the unresolved issue of ownership of ancestral lands, the rights of Taiwan’s indigenous ethnic minorities are protected by law. Six seats in the legislature are reserved for indigenous people, giving them representation that exceeds their share of the population. Five aboriginal townships were incorporated into new municipalities in December, meaning that the aboriginal inhabitants could no longer elect township mayors; the heads of these new districts would be appointed by the municipal mayors, undermining the aboriginals’ autonomy. A draft Indigenous Autonomy Law proposed by the government in September was criticized for the weak self-government entities it envisioned and its failure to address the land-rights issue.
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 Chinese nationalist soldiers left behind in Thailand and Burma in 1949.
Government development projects have triggered concerns about land rights, the environment, and the rule of law. In 2010, the government allowed the construction of a science park to continue even after a court issued an injunction in July to suspend the project due to an incomplete environmental-impact assessment. Also in July, protests by farmers erupted after officials destroyed farmland during a land seizure. Thousands of people rallied in November to demand that the government stop its expansion of the petrochemical industry.
Taiwanese women face private-sector job discrimination and lower pay than men on average. After the 2008 elections, women held 30 percent of the legislature’s seats. Rape and domestic violence remain problems despite government programs to protect women and the work of numerous NGOs to improve women’s rights. According to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, Taiwan is a destination, and to a much lesser extent a source and transit territory, for human trafficking.