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  • The Evolution of Human Rights in Taiwan and Challenges from China
  • Chieh-Ting Yeh (bio)

When the United States ended diplomatic recognition of the Republic of China and Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in 1979, Taiwan recognized few human rights. The central government was controlled by the Kuomintang (KMT) under the grip of strongman Chiang Ching-kuo. The country had been under martial law for roughly three decades. But since then, Taiwan has made remarkable strides in transforming itself from an authoritarian society into a functioning democracy with the rule of law and respect for human rights. And the United States played a vital role in that transformation.

This essay will examine the evolution of a human rights culture in Taiwan and the role played in it by the United States. It will then address the contemporary challenge across the strait that China poses to human rights at home and to media and narrative freedoms both in Taiwan and around the world. Last, it will look at the TRA as a foundation for deeper human rights cooperation between the United States and Taiwan, and broadly assess some of the ways the United States can support the civil freedoms espoused by the liberal global order.

A Modern Taiwan Founded on Human Rights

The very concept of modern Taiwan is deeply rooted in human rights ideals. In the 1920s and 1930s, as nation-states arose through the newly recognized right of self-determination, the first modern activists in Taiwan organized to petition Japan, its colonial master, for limited self-rule under a new Taiwanese parliament.1 After World War II, the Taiwanese elite welcomed the takeover by the KMT-led Republic of China, but their hopes for self-rule were soon quashed, and many of these same elites were executed by the KMT in 1947. [End Page 26]

The 228 Massacre and other highly repressive policies of the KMT regime led Taiwanese intellectuals to flee overseas and take their activism to an international stage.2 As history turned out, these appeals to the international community were never realized, and Taiwan entered one of the longest periods of martial law in the world. The United States continued to provide aid to the KMT in Taiwan, despite the regime's ruthlessness in dealing with its own people. When the TRA was passed in 1979, it was a measure to continue ties with Taiwan, even as the United States formally recognized the totalitarian Communist regime in Beijing.

Since 1979, human rights have linked the United States and Taiwan on two levels: first, the United States has played a vital role in shaping Taiwan's human rights development through policy and civil society interaction. Second, U.S. democracy has served as an inspiration and a model for activists and policymakers in Taiwan, many of whom studied and worked in the United States.

Yet, even as the TRA passed, pro-democracy activists such as Annette Lu and Shih Ming-teh were arrested later that year, court martialed, and sentenced to prison for organizing a Human Rights Day protest in Kaohsiung. But not long after that, President Chiang Ching-kuo announced he would lift martial law, which ended in 1987. In 1992, the first-ever national legislative elections were held in Taiwan; in 1996, the first-ever presidential election was held; and in 2000, the first-ever peaceful transition of power to an opposition party occurred.

In March 2009, Taiwan ratified the two UN human rights covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (even though Taiwan is not required to, as it is not a UN member). Ten years later, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex civil unions.

All these achievements had U.S. involvement, often through civil-society relationships. Annette Lu, for example, was named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, and was eventually released with the help of her professor from Harvard, Jerome Cohen.3 When Chiang announced he would end martial law, it was in an interview with the Washington Post.4 [End Page 27] In more recent years, marriage equality activists (as well as...


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