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...the national legislature adopted "one of the most radical pieces of social legislation perhaps ever passed in an Asian country." Related Gully Coverage:

Lewinsky Redux in Taiwan

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Taiwan's Vice President, Annette Lu, speaks her mind.
Boisterous Taiwan

by Kelly Cogswell

JUNE 25, 2002. While international media focuses on cross-strait tensions with China, post-Kuomintang (KMT) economic turmoil, and a wealth of juicy sex scandals, Taiwan's boisterous new democracy is picking up steam.

Last week, the national legislature adopted the Civil Code Amendment bill, which Asia Times' Laurence Eyton called "one of the most radical pieces of social legislation perhaps ever passed in an Asian country." The bill, mandating wages for housewives, was designed to deal with the growing trend of Taiwanese husbands working across the strait in China who strip their families of their assets to set up house with mistresses or bigamous wives there.

Earlier this year, advocates for women's rights won passage of the Gender Equality Labor law, banning sexual discrimination in the workplace. Women were being fired for getting pregnant and, in extreme cases, for getting married.

Taiwan's Vice President, Annette Lu, a tremendous role model for women, has survived early attacks from the opposition KMT and Chinese politicos across the strait for her unflinching support of independence while President Chen Shui-bian was doing the Clintonesque wobble on this, and other crucial issues, including nuclear plants and the economy. Since Taiwan became an official member of the World Trade Organization on January 1, 2001, it has been Lu that has represented Taiwan's trade interests abroad, from Gambia to the Vatican.

Taiwan's fifty-seven aboriginal tribes are also asserting themselves in the political and civic arena despite disproportionate poverty, illness, and an average life expectancy ten years less than that of the rest of the nation. They have eight seats in the national legislature and are also building environmental and civil rights movements.

In early May, hundreds of protesters from the Tao tribe demanded that President Chen fulfill his campaign pledge to remove the roughly 98,000 barrels of low-level nuclear waste from Orchid Island, where they live. Chen's response was wishy washy, but activists continued to press for the waste to be removed by the end of the year.

In April, aboriginal legislators demanded an amendment to the National Park Law so that, according to legislator Walis Pelin, of the Atayal tribe, new parks incorporating aboriginal lands and villages would not violate "the lives, culture and rights of aborigines..." Earlier in the spring, elders in the tribal village of Shuitien had to seal off some of their territory to protect it from a sudden onslaught of ecotourists.

Lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (lgbt) activism has also gained momentum. Last month, when the Taiwanese media uncovered the Armed Forces Police Command's ban on gay men serving as military police, there was an immediate outcry from the increasingly vocal lgbt community, and human-rights organizations. The next day, facing strong protests from all sides, the Minister of National Defense, Tang Yao-ming, promised to lift the ban.

Lgbt people are also making their presence felt in electoral politics. An activist group formed before the December legislative elections endorsed a list of gay-friendly Taipei City and County legislative candidates. Two openly gay candidates even ran for legislative seats, James Jan, in Kaohsiung City's southern constituency, and Webster Chen, in Taipei City's southern district. Their campaigns succeeded in making lgbt issues visible, even though they weren't elected.

The 2001 publication of Chang Chiao-ting's "The Taming and the Resistance" offered scandalized Taiwanese a glimpse of the lives of lesbian high school students. The book includes a series of interviews with 10 lesbians that attended the elite Taipei First Girls' Senior High School. Tuan Chien-fa also made history in 2001 as the first teacher to publicly come out as a gay man in Taiwan. The Ministry of Education is planning to include lgbt issues in programs now being developed to "help students and parents understand and respect others."

The administration's AIDS prevention program is less enlightened. Gay men and prostitutes continue to be demonized as "high risk," even as the latest official figures show that the newly infected are increasingly heterosexual.

Indigenous people and women haven't won the war, either. The administration is more likely to set up a committee to talk aboriginal problems to death, than to actually act on them. Women in politics are still seen as buffoons. When legislator and TV personality Sisy Chen, in her talk show, described the President's wife as a country bumpkin, a male legislator retaliated by calling Chen "whore," "tramp" and "slut" on the floor of parliament. Vice President Annette Lu continues to be ridiculed in the media.

Nevertheless, the disenfranchised of Taiwan are there in the public eye, mixing it up with detractors, exercising democracy. It was only in 1987 that the KMT, which had ruled with an iron fist since 1949, replaced martial law with the slightly less harsh National Security Act. Under martial law, feminists, and lesbian, gay, and transgendered peoples were targeted, and political opposition rated prison or death — both President Chen and Vice President Annette Lu spent time in jail, Lu for five years. Taiwan's first democratic legislative elections were held in 1992. Chen's election in 2000 marked the first time in 51 years that the highest office was held by someone outside the KMT.

Now, the lively nation early Chinese conquerors complained had, "every three years an uprising, every five years a rebellion," is back in action.

Related links:

For an in depth look at Annette Lu.

For No need to fear Aborigines' claims to land

For Book reveals lesbian lives

For Taiwan's gay campaigners

For Complete Coverage Asia

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