Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 2
Status: Free
Population: 22,600,000
GNI/Capita: $13,392
Life Expectancy: 75
Religious Groups: Mixture of Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist (93 percent), Christian (4.5 percent), other (2.5 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Taiwanese [including Hakka] (84 percent), mainland Chinese (14 percent), Aboriginal (2 percent)
Capital: Taipei


As campaigning heated up for Taiwan's March 2004 presidential election, the focus was on two related issues that have dominated the island's politics in recent years: economic links with China and the question of Taiwanese independence. Trailing in the polls, President Chen Shui-bian tightened the race late in 2003 with calls for a new constitution that, he hinted, would promote Taiwan's formal independence from China. Opposition leader Lien Chan, however, maintained the lead, in most polls, that he had seized after teaming up with a former rival to contest the election. A Lien victory could help break the stalemate with Beijing that has prevented Taiwan and China from establishing direct air and shipping links.

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 independent in all but name, Beijing considers it to be a renegade province of China and has long threatened to invade if the island formally declares independence.

Taiwan's democratic transition began in 1987, when the KMT government lifted a state of martial law imposed 38 years earlier. 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 the holding of Taiwan's first multiparty legislative elections in 1991 and the first 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."

With Lee barred by term limits from seeking reelection, Chen's victory in the 2000 presidential race, in which he ran as the standard-bearer of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), broke the KMT's grip on politics and signaled that Taiwan would continue promoting an independent identity. Chen, a former Taipei mayor, downplayed but did not renounce his DPP's core position that Taiwan should eventually be independent. With an 82 percent turnout, Chen took 39 percent of the vote to defeat James Soong, a KMT defector who ran as an independent and took 37 percent, and Vice President Lien Chan, who captured 23 percent. Despite Chen's victory, the combined support for his two conservative opponents, totaling around 60 percent of the vote, suggested that many Taiwanese are wary of the DPP's pro-independence platform and its potential to cause trouble with China.

Still, the DPP swept the conservative KMT out of parliamentary power for the first time in the December 2001 legislative elections. While the question of independence loomed large in the campaign, many voters appeared to be swayed at least partly by the DPP's pledges of cleaner government. 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 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.

Chen's hopes for reelection dimmed in April 2003 after Lien and Soong, his rivals in 2000, teamed up to contest the 2004 vote on a ticket headed by Lien. A KMT alliance in parliament with People First also made it harder for the DPP to pass legislation. A widely anticipated banking reform bill was defeated in July.

Chen gained ground in opinion polls, however, with his surprise proposal in September that Taiwan adopt a new constitution through an islandwide referendum by 2006. Chen said that a new constitution would improve governance by streamlining Taiwan's complicated presidential-parliamentary system. Chen also hinted that he was seeking to delete provisions in the 1946 constitution that formally link Taiwan to the mainland. Along with an economic rebound that coincided with the containment of Asia's severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, the buzz surrounding the proposal helped Chen close the gap with Lien to single digits by November from around 20 percentage points in August, according to some polls.

The KMT proposed its own constitutional reforms in November that included changing the presidential election rules to require an outright majority for victory. In late November, the opposition-controlled parliament passed a bill permitting island-wide referendums but, in a setback to Chen, gave the legislature, not the president, the power to decide what questions are put to voters. Undaunted, Chen proposed using a special provision in the law, allowing the president to hold a "defensive" referendum when the island faces an imminent external threat, to hold a referendum during the 2004 presidential election. Chen said that China's longstanding threats against Taiwan justified using the defensive referendum procedure. China sharply rebuked Taiwan, particularly after the administration announced that the referendum would ask whether Taiwan should boost its missile defenses in response to China's build-up of missiles aimed at the island, and whether Taiwan should seek peace talks with the mainland.

Despite Chen's late-year bounce in the polls, the KMT has benefited from frustration among many Taiwanese over the lack of any breakthrough in relations with China. Taiwanese businessmen have poured some $100 billion into China in the past decade or so but say that the lack of direct air and shipping links pushes up their costs. Beijing, however, refuses to negotiate on opening direct links between Taiwan and the mainland unless Taipei concedes that such links are a domestic matter rather than a state-to-state affair. The DPP generally favors closer economic ties but argues that accepting Beijing's one-China precondition would be tantamount to Taiwan's formally renouncing independence.

Beyond their differences over cross-strait relations, the KMT and DPP share similar economic policies. Moreover, a general consensus exists that Taiwan needs to respond to the exodus of Taiwanese factories to the mainland in recent years by boosting its high-end services, research, and manufacturing industries.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Taiwanese can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. The 1946 constitution, adopted while the Kuomintang (KMT) was in power on the mainland, created a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system. The president, who is directly elected for a four-year term, wields executive power, appoints the prime minister, and can dissolve the legislature. The prime minister is responsible to the legislature, which is directly elected for a three-year term.

The Chen Shiu-bian administration has worked to crack down on vote buying and on the links between politicians and organized crime that were widely believed to have flourished under KMT rule. The Justice Department, for example, has indicted more than 100 Taiwanese for vote buying related to recent legislative and local elections; dozens of legislators, magistrates, and local officials have been indicted for corruption.

Two alleged scandals in 2002, however, stoked concerns over official corruption. The chief shareholder in a development company admitted that she had made large loans to several Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and KMT politicians. Meanwhile, police in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city, detained Chu Anhsiung for allegedly paying several other city councillors to vote for him as speaker of the municipal body. The Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Taiwan in a tie for thirtieth place out of 133 countries rated in its 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index, with top-ranked Finland being the least corrupt country.

Taiwanese newspapers report aggressively on corruption and other sensitive issues and carry outspoken editorials and opinion pieces. In a setback for press freedom, the High Court in July sentenced journalist Hung Cheh-cheng to 18 months in jail for sedition over an article that it said contained classified information about Taiwanese military exercises. The Court granted Hung a three-year suspended sentence. Moreover, criminal defamation laws used by past governments to jail journalists are still on the books. In a positive development, the High Court in 2000 upheld a lower court ruling that raised the legal barrier for news outlets to be convicted of libel.

Broadcast television stations reportedly are subject to some editorial influence by their owners. The DPP, KMT, government, and armed forces each are the largest shareholder in, or otherwise are associated with, one of Taiwan's five island-wide broadcast television stations. The fifth is run by a nonprofit public foundation. Any political influence over regular television is offset, however, by the fact that more than 80 percent of Taiwanese households can access roughly 100 private cable television stations. The government defends a controversial requirement that radio station owners have roughly $1.45 million in capital on the grounds that the amount is based on the actual costs of running a station. Moreover, the amount is reduced for stations serving designated ethnic groups or for certain other socially beneficial purposes.

Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Adherents of Buddhism and Taoism make up around 40 percent of the population. Taiwanese professors and other educators can write and lecture freely. Laws barring Taiwanese from advocating communism or independence from China remain on the books, though they are no longer enforced.

Taiwanese human rights, social welfare, and environmental nongovernmental groups are active and operate without harassment. Trade unions are independent, and roughly 30 percent of workers are unionized. However, teachers, civil servants, and defense industry workers are barred from joining unions or bargaining collectively. Moreover, the law restricts the right to strike by, for example, allowing authorities to order mediation of labor disputes and ban work stoppages while mediation is in progress. Some union leaders have been dismissed without reasonable cause or laid off first during lean times. In another concern, some employers take advantage of illegal foreign workers by confiscating their passports, deducting money from their wages without their consent, and having them work extended hours without overtime pay, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2002, released in March 2003.

Taiwan's judiciary is largely independent, and trials generally are fair. However, corruption and political influence over the courts remain "serious problems," the U.S. State Department report said, despite recent judicial reforms. Moreover, police reportedly at times use force to extract confessions from suspects and, while confessions obtained through torture are inadmissible, courts sometimes accept confessions even when they contradict other evidence or plain logic, the report added. In a case that the human rights group Amnesty International called a "miscarriage of justice," three men in October began their tenth trial on the same 1991 murder charges. The charges are based almost entirely on confessions that allegedly were extracted by torture.

Taiwan's 400,000 aborigines face discrimination in mainstream society and, in general, have little input into major decisions affecting their land, culture, and traditions. Ethnic Chinese developers often use "connections and corruption" to gain title to aboriginal land, according to the U.S. State Department report. Aborigines say that they also are prevented from owning certain ancestral land under government control. In another concern, anecdotal evidence suggests that child prostitution is a serious problem among aboriginal children despite initiatives by the government and private groups, such as the Garden of Hope Foundation, to protect children.

Taiwanese women have made impressive gains in recent years in business, but reportedly continue to face job discrimination in the private sector. 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 sometimes are forced to quit jobs because of age, marriage, or pregnancy.

Rape and domestic violence are serious problems in Taiwan, the U.S. State Department report said, despite government programs to protect women. Although the law allows authorities to investigate complaints of domestic violence and to prosecute rape suspects without the victims formally pressing charges, cultural norms inhibit many women from reporting these crimes.

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