The political environment has played an important role in shaping the development of civil society in Taiwan. Taiwan was ruled by Japan from 1895 to 1945, and by the Kuomingtang (KMT) party, which lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, where it set up the Republic of China (ROC). Like the CCP, the KMT was a highly centralized Leninist party, which admitted no political competitors. From 1949 to 1987, the KMT ruled Taiwan, imposing martial law and strict controls on civil society, denying citizens the right to form independent associations or political parties.
During this period, the KMT formed many of its own party and government-led civic organizations and foundations. The earliest independent CSOs were international ones, such as the Red Cross, World Vision, Christian Children’s Fund, Rotary Club, and Lion’s Club, which came into Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s. These international civil society organizations (CSOs) provided a foundation for the wave of civil society organizing that began in the late 1980s and 1990s as Taiwan began to democratize. A watershed event in the democratization process was the election of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Chen Shui-bian, as president in 2000. In 2016, the DPP again made history when it captured the majority in the Legislative Yuan and its candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, was elected president.
During the democratization period, Taiwanese CSOs and social movements working on environmental, religious, labor, women, indigenous, migrant, consumer, humanitarian relief, and other issues emerged to challenge and resist authoritarianism. They called for an independent public sphere and the formation of new political and social values. In 2014, the Sunflower Movement galvanized students and civic groups against a trade pact being negotiated between China and the KMT-led government in Taiwan. This gave new impetus to civil society, including the formation of a new political party, the New Power Party, which advocated for stronger civil and political liberties and Taiwanese independence.
Internationally, Taiwan’s newly independent civil society began to collaborate with international CSOs on humanitarian assistance and international development in a number of countries around the world. However, Taiwan’s unique international position as a territory not recognized by the United Nations and a large majority of the world’s states has made it difficult for Taiwan’s CSOs to work with the international community. This situation has intensified since the DPP came to power in 2016. Angered by the DPP’s pro-independence position, the People’s Republic of China (PROC) has waged an increasingly assertive diplomatic, political and military campaign to further isolate Taiwan. This campaign, however, has had the opposite effect of encouraging more international CSOs to come to Taiwan in recent years and use the island as a base for their regional work.
Overall, civil society in Taiwan is diverse and active, representing a broad range of social interests. Civic freedoms are widely exercised with few restrictions. Civil society enjoys meaningful access to political decision-making; indeed, both major political parties – the DPP and KMT – coordinate closely with CSOs. The current DPP administration, in particular, is reportedly composed of a number of individuals who were active in civil society.
Taiwan ranks high on many international indicators and is given high marks on its human rights record by international observers. For example, in 2019, it became the first Asian country to recognize same-sex marriages. In 2020, it set up a National Human Rights Commission. Taiwan received the highest ranking in the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Democracy Index among Asian countries and is rated by Freedom House as “free” with a score of 94 out of 100. There are, however, still outstanding issues that have not been addressed, such as the rights of migrant laborers and the lack of a refugee or asylum law.
Taiwan follows a civil law tradition. In 1992, the Taiwan government revised the restrictive laws governing CSOs from the martial law period and created a new civil association law that enabled citizens to form independent associations. In 2014, Taiwan drafted a Social Enterprise Law to encourage the development of social enterprises on the island, and in 2018 passed a new Foundation Act. This legal framework, however, is somewhat constraining as efforts in recent years seeking to reform the Civil Association and Foundation Acts reveal.