2001 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1

Ratings Change

Taiwan's political rights rating changed from 2 to 1 due to free and fair presidential elections, and the subsequent orderly transfer of power, in which the Nationalist Party was defeated after over half a century of rule.


Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Chen Shui-bien defeated Nationalist Party candidate Vice President Lien Chen in the March 2000 presidential elections. Chen's victory ended 55 years of Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), rule. This peaceful transition of power in May was soon followed by political storms and challenges to unseat Chen. In international diplomacy, Chen's government outlined a new approach which will depart from the statist approach to pursue cooperation between civil society groups in Taiwan and overseas. The new approach will also emphasize human rights and democracy, areas Taiwan believes it has a competitive edge over Beijing. But to ease Beijing's anxiety about his new government, Chen declared in his inauguration speech that his government would not declare independence if Taiwan were not attacked. On December 28, Beijing accepted Taiwan's proposal to open two offshore islands to goods and passengers from the mainland and to allow island residents to travel directly to the Chinese mainland.

Taiwan, located 100 miles off the southern coast of mainland China, became the home of a government-in-exile in 1949, when the Communist victory on the mainland forced KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek to retreat to the island and establish a Nationalist government there. Both Beijing and Taipei officially consider Taiwan a province of China, although Taipei has abandoned its long-standing claim to be the legitimate government of mainland China. Native Taiwanese constitute 85 percent of the population, while mainlanders and their descendants make up the rest, along with a tiny minority of aboriginal peoples.

After four decades of authoritarian KMT rule, Taiwan's democratic transition began with the lifting of martial law in 1987. Lee Teng-hui became the first native Taiwanese president in 1988. Under his leadership, he asserted native Taiwanese control of the KMT, marginalized its mainlander faction, and de-emphasized the party's commitment to eventual reunification with China. In 1993, Lien Chen was chosen as the first native Taiwanese premier. A viable opposition to the KMT emerged in the country's first multiparty elections in 1991. The Democratic People's Party, which officially favors formal independence from mainland China, won several seats in the national assembly. The widening political space and public dissatisfaction with the KMT's factionalism, corruption and alleged organized crime links had weakened electoral support for the ruling party. At the November 1997 local elections, the Democratic People's Party downplayed its independence platform and promised clean, responsive government to narrowly defeat the KMT, for the first time, in the number of administrative posts and in the popular vote, at 43 percent versus 42 percent.

Civil society has gained strength in Taiwan in recent years. Public criticisms and protests against government policies toward aboriginal peoples, the environment, nuclear power, corruption, and other public policy issues have become commonplace. The election of Chen of the DPP in the March 2000 presidential elections was a historic victory for democracy in Taiwan.

The DPP had long advocated independence from China. Chen, who took office in May, chose not to chair the government's National Unification Council, whose official purpose is to promote unification with China. But Chinese anxiety must be dealt with and Chen only won 39 percent of the vote. Thus, in addition to his inaugural pledge to refrain from declaring independence, Chen appointed Tang Fei of the KMT, a supporter of reunification with the Chinese mainland, as the prime minister. Beijing welcomed his gestures and softened its criticisms of Chen. Yet, Beijing worked to pressure Chen by inviting Taiwan legislators to visit China. By the end of October, more than a third of the 221 Taiwan legislators had traveled to the Chinese mainland.

Maintaining Taiwan's status as a national entity in the international community of nations has been a struggle for the government. Today, only 29 countries in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands have formal ties with Taiwan. Chen's government announced a new approach to international diplomacy, which will depart from a strict state-centered model. Although Taiwan will continue to apply for membership in the United Nations, the government will also cooperate with civil society organizations at home and overseas and emphasize human rights and democracy – areas in which Taiwan has a competitive edge over mainland China. In August, Chen took a six-country tour, which included an overnight stopover in the United States on his way to the Dominican Republic.

The auspicious start for Chen quickly turned into a battle to defend his presidency against the newly coalesced opposition. At the end of September, Tang resigned as prime minister as a result of differences with Chen over construction of the country's fourth nuclear power plant, which the DPP opposes. Relations with the KMT further soured when Chen appointed DPP member Chang Chun-hsiung to replace Tang. An ill-timed announcement on October 27 that the government would halt construction of the disputed nuclear power plant was the final break point. Just half an hour before the announcement, Chen and KMT Chairman Lien Chan had met to mend fences with Chen promising to consider the KMT position. The KMT also considered Chen's decision a challenge to the legislative process since the previous KMT-led government had approved the $6 billion project and work has already begun. A presidential recall motion was swiftly introduced. If the opposition captures a two-thirds majority in the legislature, or 147 of 220 votes, a national referendum would follow. The three opposition parties hold 141 votes, while the DPP has only 67 seats and the independents 12.

Chen's handling of this and other affairs also rocked public confidence in his government. The stock market lost 40 percent of its value in the second half of 2000. Only the crash of a Singapore Airliner on October 31 and a severe typhoon in early November allowed Chen's government a brief respite from the political battles. Critics say Chen needs to set clear priorities, better coordinate his administration and approach the opposition with greater flexibility as he works to implement his campaign promises, including new bills to crackdown on financial and corporate corruption and bar those convicted of organized criminal activities from standing for elections.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The people of Taiwan can change their government democratically. The country's transition from an authoritarian to a democratic state was consolidated by the March 1996 presidential election. The constitution vests executive power in a president, who appoints the premier without parliamentary confirmation and can dissolve the legislature. The national assembly can amend the constitution and, until 1994, elected the president and vice president. The government has five specialized yuan (branches), including a legislature that, since 1992, is directly elected for a three-year term. For five decades as the ruling party, the KMT maintained a political advantage through its influence over much of the broadcast media and its considerable business interests in Taiwan's industrial sector. Democratization throughout the 1990s allowed opposition parties to compete in elections and have an impact on national policy.

Taiwan today enjoys one of the freest media environments in Asia, despite some continuing legal restrictions and political pressures. There are laws prohibiting advocacy of formal independence from China and communism, and police can censor or ban publications considered seditious or treasonous. These provisions, however, are not generally enforced in practice. Authorities have refused to register some non-governmental organizations with the name "Taiwan" in their titles, but such groups operate freely. Courts occasionally convict journalists for criminal libel in cases brought by the government or politicians. Most media are privately owned and express a wide variety of viewpoints. The four major television networks are owned by or closely associated with the government, opposition political parties, or the military. The government respects constitutional provisions for freedom of religion.

The law allows only one labor federation. This has enabled the pro-KMT Chinese Federation of Labor to maintain a monopoly for decades. The right to strike and bargain collectively is limited by laws that allow the authorities to impose mandatory dispute mediation and other restrictions. About 31 percent of the country's labor force belong to more than 3,000 registered unions.

The judiciary is not fully independent. It remains susceptible to corruption, and was exposed to political influence under the KMT. A number of judges were indicted in 1998 for accepting bribes. Judges are now drawn increasingly from outside the ruling party. The Anti-Hoodlum Law allows police to detain alleged "hoodlums" on the basis of testimony by unidentified informants. In 1998, a new organization of prosecutors was established to promote ongoing political reform, including higher professional standards. There are still reports of police abusing suspects, conducting personal identity and vehicle checks with widespread discretion, and obtaining evidence illegally with few ramifications. Prisons are overcrowded, and conditions are harsh in detention camps for illegal immigrants, whose number has grown in recent years. A new law was adopted in May 1998 to ban companies connected with political parties from bidding for public contracts. Bid riggers could get the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

In recent years, Taiwan has considerably relaxed travel restrictions on its citizens to the Chinese mainland, although many limits on mainland Chinese visitors remain in force. In 1999, the government launched an investigation into the background of more than 100,000 immigrants and visitors from China after intelligence agencies said that some of these people were involved in espionage and other illegal activities.

Women continue to face discrimination in employment. Rape and domestic violence are serious problems, particularly in a culture that discourages open discussion and the use of legal interventions. New legislation adopted in June 1998 requires all city and county governments to establish domestic violence prevention centers. The country's 357,000 aboriginal descendants of Malayo-Polynesians suffer from social and economic alienation and have restricted influence over policy decisions regarding their land and natural resources.

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