Freedom in the World 2016 - Taiwan

Freedom Status: 
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 

President Ma Ying-jeou and the ruling nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party continued to pursue closer ties with China in 2015. However, a controversial 2013 trade agreement that would open up their respective service sectors remained stalled in the legislature at year’s end. When the Ma administration sought to expedite passage of the accord in 2014, student-led protests that became known as the Sunflower Movement successfully blocked the effort. Beijing considers Taiwan a Chinese province, and while Taiwan has stopped short of declaring formal independence, many residents remain wary of growing Chinese influence.

Broader dissatisfaction with KMT policies, including accusations that it had failed to address widening income inequality and sluggish economic growth, contributed to the party’s defeat in November 2014 municipal elections and threatened its chances in general elections scheduled for January 2016. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) remained the main opposition force, and several new parties were formed during 2015, including the New Power Party, headed by leaders of the Sunflower Movement.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 37 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

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.

President Ma won a second term in the 2012 general elections, and the KMT retained its majority in the legislature, taking 64 seats. The DPP, historically a pro-independence party, kept its status as the main opposition faction with 40 seats. The remainder went to smaller parties and an independent candidate.

Elections in Taiwan are administered by the Central Election Commission. To maintain its impartiality, 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.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

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 for decades governed Taiwan as an authoritarian, one-party state until democratic reforms took hold in the 1980s and 90s, retains a considerable financial advantage over its rivals as part of this legacy, and in recent years it has benefited from the fact that the business sector generally favors the Ma administration’s China-friendly policy. Nevertheless, there have been two rotations of power between the KMT and DPP since 2000, and the DPP and independents made major gains in the 2014 local elections. The latter part of 2015 was dominated by campaigning for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in January 2016, in which a number of smaller parties, including the newly formed New Power Party, were expected to compete.

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 aboriginal candidates elected by aboriginal voters.


C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12

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 influence from foreign or other unelected actors.

Corruption is significantly less pervasive than in the past, but it remains a problem in Taiwan. Politics and big business are closely intertwined, leading to malfeasance in government procurement. The former deputy mayor of New Taipei City, Hsu Chih-chien, was charged with bribery along with two of his family members in November 2015. Hsu allegedly took NT$7.58 million (US$230,000) in bribes from two construction companies in exchange for expediting the approval process for the companies’ projects.

Former president Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence for corruption, was granted medical parole in January. The decision came after the authorities were accused of failing to provide him with adequate care behind bars. The parole was repeatedly reviewed and extended through the end of 2015.

Taiwan was ranked 30 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. The Taiwanese government has taken significant steps toward improving transparency, including through the launch of a database for public documents in 2013. Civil society groups are able to comment on and influence pending legislation and regulatory decisions. However, analysts have identified shortcomings in Taiwan’s 2005 freedom of information law, including inadequate enforcement mechanisms.


Civil Liberties: 52 / 60 (+1)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 14 / 16

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 exerted growing 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 resisted proposed mergers that would place important media outlets in the hands of businessmen with significant ties to China. The government does not restrict internet access.

In July 2015, during a protest over proposed changes to the high school curriculum, police arrested three journalists who followed students breaking into the Ministry of Education. The reporters were later released without charge.

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. Private discussion is open and free, and there were no reports of the government illegally monitoring online communication.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12 (+1)

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. Since 2014, there has been a spike in youth-led demonstrations. Although the police were accused of using excessive force while expelling student protesters from the Executive Yuan in 2014, their handling of students’ brief occupation of the Ministry of Education building in July 2015 was more restrained. The latter protesters, mainly high school students, argued that proposed new curriculum guidelines were China-centric and had been drafted through an insufficiently transparent process. The police arrested 33 people, though only five eventually faced charges.

Meanwhile, cases stemming from the 2014 protests made their way through the courts. Authorities announced charges against 119 people in February 2015, citing alleged offenses including instigating others to commit a crime, trespassing, illegal entry into a building, obstructing an officer from discharge of duties, and violating the Assembly and Parade Act. In August, a court sentenced student leader Chen Wei-ting to 20 days in prison, but the penalty was commuted to a fine of NT$20,000 (US$620).

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.


F. Rule of Law: 14 / 16

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. Family members of inmates facing the death penalty are typically not informed about scheduled dates of executions. Despite criticism from human rights organizations opposed to the death penalty, Taiwan executed six inmates in June 2015.

The constitution provides for the equality of all citizens, though the island’s indigenous people continue to face social and economic discrimination. Disputes over their lands have continued amid long-stalled efforts to pass legislation on indigenous autonomy. In April 2015, the government released a draft law that would establish 16 autonomous governments for indigenous groups, overseen by an Executive Yuan agency, with authority over natural resources, cultural heritage, and local industries. Critics said the measure granted insufficient self-rule and was formulated without input from indigenous communities. It had not passed by year’s end.

Taiwanese law prohibits discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation, and violence against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people is adequately addressed by police.

Taiwanese law does not allow for asylum or refugee status, and a 2010 bill that would address the problem was still under legislative review at the end of 2015.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 13 / 16

Taiwan’s residents enjoy freedom of movement, and restrictions on travel between Taiwan and China have been gradually eased in recent years. A program launched in 2011 allows Chinese tourists to travel to Taiwan without supervision. In September 2015, Taiwanese authorities raised the cap on the number of Chinese tourists who could travel to Taiwan through the program from 4,000 to 5,000 per day.

Urban renewal projects and conversions of agricultural land for industrial or residential use have been criticized for unfairly displacing residents. In 2013, the Constitutional Court found parts of the Urban Renewal Act to be unconstitutional; the act requires agreement from just 10 percent of residents for a renewal project to be approved by the local government. However, revisions to the law remained stalled in the Legislative Yuan at the end of 2015.

The constitution guarantees women equal rights, though Taiwanese women continue to face discrimination in employment and compensation. After the 2012 elections, women held one-third of the seats in the legislature.

Same-sex marriage is not permitted. A bill that would amend the civil code to legalize such unions was introduced in 2013, but it failed to make progress during 2015. In June, amid pressure for reform triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s Justice Ministry said that the practice would remain illegal “for now.”

According to official statistics, there were approximately 588,000 foreign workers in Taiwan in 2015, many of whom are household workers. Household workers are not covered under basic labor laws, including statutes governing minimum wage, limits on work hours, and overtime pay, rendering them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. They are often subject to sexual harassment. Exploitation of foreign workers is also common in the fishing industry. Even though the industry is regulated under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the rules are not strictly enforced.

Taiwan is a destination country for human trafficking victims, particularly migrant workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Sex trafficking remains a problem, with women originating in China or Southeast Asia often among the victims.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology