Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Population: 22,500,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: 75
Religious Groups: Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist (93 percent), Christian
Ethnic Groups: Taiwanese (84 percent), mainland Chinese (14 percent), aborigine (2 percent)
Capital: Taipei

Political Rights Score: 2
Civil Liberties Score: 2
Status: Free

Ratings Change
Taiwan's political rating declined from 1 to 2 due to changes in the survey methodology.


With elections looming in 2004, President Chen Shui-bian saw his popularity slide amid a series of policy reversals and criticism that he hasn't done enough to improve economic ties with China. Prospects for closer relations between Taiwan and the mainland appeared dim at year's end, with the two sides unable to agree on a framework for long-awaited talks over improved trade, travel, and communications links. As always, the sticking point is the underlying question of whether Taiwan will eventually be reunited with the mainland or will formally become an independent state.

Located some 100 miles off the southeast coast of China, Taiwan became the home of the Koumintang (KMT), or Nationalist, government-in-exile in 1949, when Communist forces overthrew the Nationalists following two decades of civil war on the mainland. While Taiwan is de facto independent, Beijing considers it to be a renegade province of China and has long threatened to invade if the island formally declares independence.

After four decades of authoritarian KMT rule, Taiwan's democratic transition began in 1987, when the government lifted martial law after 38 years. The KMT's Lee Teng-hui in 1988 became the first native-Taiwanese president. His election broke a stranglehold on politics by mainland refugees, who, along with their descendants, make up 14 percent of Taiwan's population.

In his 12 years in office, Lee oversaw far-reaching political reforms including Taiwan's first multiparty legislative elections in 1991 and direct presidential elections in 1996. Lee also played down the KMT's historic commitment to eventual reunification with China, promoting instead a Taiwanese national identity that undermined Beijing's claim that there is only "one China."

The victory by Chen, of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in the 2000 presidential election signaled that Taiwan would continue promoting an independent identity but also would pursue closer relations with the mainland. With Lee barred by term limits from seeking reelection, Chen and his two rivals all pledged to reverse the outgoing president's policy and seek warmer economic ties across the Taiwan Strait. The main difference between the candidates on mainland policy involved the issue that has polarized Taiwanese politics in recent years: whether Taiwan's long-term goal should be reunification with the mainland or outright independence.

Chen, a former Taipei mayor, downplayed but did not renounce his DPP's core position that Taiwan eventually should be independent. James Soong, a former KMT heavyweight who ran as an independent, seemed to favor outgoing president Lee's policy of gradually moving Taiwan toward formal independence without taking an explicit pro-independence line. Meanwhile, Vice President Lien Chan, who succeeded Lee as KMT leader, tried to return the KMT to its historic policy of supporting eventual reunification with China. With an 82 percent turnout, Chen won 39 percent of the vote, Soong, 37 percent, and Lien, 23 percent.

The DPP followed up on its victory in the presidential election by sweeping the conservative KMT out of parliamentary power, for the first time, in the December 2001 legislative elections. The victory gave Chen a freer hand to pass legislation and suggested that KMT leader Lien's advocacy of eventual reunification resonates little with the island's native-Taiwanese majority. The DPP won 87 of parliament's 225 seats, up from 70 in 1998, while the KMT took 68, down from 123. The new People's First Party, headed by KMT defector Soong, won 46 seats. The Taiwan Solidarity Union, backed by former president Lee, won 13 seats, and two minor parties and independents took the remainder.

Local elections in December 2002 may have breathed new life into the KMT. The party's Ma Ying-jeou, 52, was overwhelmingly reelected as mayor of the capital Taipei. He could be a challenger to Chen in the 2004 elections, although both Soong and Lien may take another shot at the top post. Opinion polls, meanwhile, suggested that Chen's popularity had slumped to 30 to 40 percent late in the year from about 70 percent after his election. Under pressure from farmers and others, he suspended a plan to clean up ailing grassroots financial institutions that would have curbed their commercial operations.

The stalemate in cross-strait relations stems in part from Beijing's continued refusal to negotiate on opening direct links between Taiwan and the mainland unless Taipei concedes that such links are a domestic matter. Such a position would be tantamount to Taiwan's formally conceding that it is not independent.

Eventually, however, Taiwan's recent entry into the World Trade Organization should make it possible for its businessmen to invest directly in China and easier for them to import goods from the mainland. Current restrictions push up costs for the 50,000 Taiwanese businesses operating there. At the same time, closer investment links would accelerate what has been an exodus of Taiwanese factories to the mainland in search of cheaper wages. Analysts say that Taiwan must respond by boosting its high-end manufacturing and services industries.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Taiwanese can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. The constitution vests executive power in a president who is directly elected for a four-year term. The president appoints the prime minister and can dissolve the legislature. The latter is directly elected for a three-year term and can dismiss the prime minister and cabinet in no-confidence votes.

The Chen Administration has taken steps toward cracking down on the vote buying and on links between politicians and organized crime that were widely believed to have flourished under KMT rule. The Justice Department, for example, indicted more than 3,700 persons for vote buying related to the 2001 legislative and local elections.

The sheer number of people indicted, however, suggests that official corruption is still a problem. Two alleged scandals in 2002 further stoked these concerns. The chief shareholder in a development company admitted that she made large loans to several DPP and KMT politicians to win favorable treatment for the company. Meanwhile, police in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city, detained Chu An-hsiung in December for allegedly paying several other city councilors to vote for him as speaker of the municipal body. The Berlin-based Transparency International watchdog group ranked Taiwan in a tie for 29th place out of 102 countries in its annual corruption survey for 2002, with top-ranked Finland being the least corrupt country.

Taiwan's judiciary is independent, the U.S. State Department's annual global human rights report for 2001 said. This marked an improvement from the previous year's report, which had described Taiwan's judiciary as not fully independent. Without directly explaining the upgraded assessment, the report, released in March 2002, cited recent government efforts to eliminate corruption and diminish political influence over the courts. These reforms included the creation of an independent committee to decide judicial appointments and promotions using secret balloting.

Defendants generally receive fair trials, according to the U.S. State Department report, but added however, that police occasionally use force to obtain confessions from suspects and pointed to evidence that such confessions play a role in some convictions.

Taiwanese newspapers report aggressively on corruption and other sensitive issues and carry outspoken editorials and opinion pieces. Laws used by past governments to jail journalists, however, remain on the books. "The most serious threat to press freedom in Taiwan remains the persistence of criminal penalties for libel, defamation, and insult," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in 2000. Meanwhile, government agents in March raided the Taipei office of the Hong Kong-based Next magazine after it published an article alleging that former president Lee's administration used secret government funds to curry influence abroad. In a positive development, the high court in 2000 upheld a lower court ruling that raised the legal barrier for news organizations to be convicted of libel.

Broadcast television stations are subject to some political influence by their owners, the U.S. State Department report said. The government, DPP, KMT, and armed forces are each the largest shareholder in, or are otherwise associated with, one of Taiwan's five islandwide broadcast television stations. The fifth is run by a nonprofit public foundation. Possible party influence over regular television is offset, however, by the availability to more than 80 percent of Taiwanese households of roughly 100 local and international private cable television stations.

The government has refused to license private, islandwide radio stations, though it has in recent years issued more than two dozen licenses for private regional stations. Critics say that many of these stations have limited broadcast ranges and can be heard only in sparsely-populated areas. Moreover, licensing rules require radio station owners to have more capital than actually is required to operate stations. The government says that the $50 million (U.S.$1.45 million) required capitalization is based on actual business costs. It also points out that radio stations serving designated ethnic groups or certain other socially beneficial purposes need put up only $1 million. Though no longer enforced, laws barring Taiwanese from advocating communism or independence from China remain on the books.

Taiwanese women have made impressive gains in recent years in business and the professions, but reportedly continue to face unofficial job discrimination. The government in 2001 passed a law banning gender discrimination in the workplace in response to charges by women's advocates that women are promoted less frequently and receive lower pay than their male counterparts and are sometimes forced to quit jobs because of age, marriage, or pregnancy. Women also hold relatively few senior posts in government and politics, although Annette Lu serves as the country's first-ever female vice president.

Rape and domestic violence are serious problems, according to the U.S. State Department report. Although recent laws allow officials to investigate complaints of domestic violence and to prosecute rape suspects, without the victims' actually pressing charges, cultural norms inhibit many victims from reporting these crimes to the police.

Taiwan's 400,000 aborigines face discrimination in mainstream society and, in general, have little input on major decisions affecting their lands, culture, and traditions, according to the U.S. State Department report. Ethnic Chinese developers often use "connections and corruption" to gain title to aboriginal land, and aborigines say that they are prevented from owning certain ancestral lands under government control, the report added. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that the problem of child prostitution is particularly acute in the aboriginal community. The government tries to curb child prostitution through law enforcement measures such as raiding brothels.

Most Taiwanese workers can legally join trade unions, and roughly 30 percent are unionized. The law, however, restricts the right to strike with provisions that, for example, allow officials to order mediation of labor disputes and ban work stoppages while mediation is in progress. Collective bargaining is not practiced widely. Moreover, teachers, civil servants, and defense industry workers are barred entirely from joining unions or bargaining collectively. Some employers take advantage of illegal foreign workers by deducting money from their wages without their consent and having them work extended hours without overtime pay, the U.S. State Department report said.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.