Taiwan's national identification card system is a carryover from the system used by the Japanese colonial government, which divided communities into units virtually along military lines. The categorization of each unit would be detailed in the household registration certificate. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) retained this system because of its effectiveness in maintaining a high level of control over the citizenry, especially in regards to the registration of the "ancestral home." Although the system has been considerably simplified since then, the distinctions, especially between non-Mainlander and Mainlander, continue to exist.
The ID card that every Taiwanese carries was in fact not issued until 1947, the year that also marked the beginning of the White Terror. Since then, the ID card has served the function of a police record sheet, and the law requires that it be carried at all times.
Since it was first issued, the ID card has been reissued on two occasions to bring it into line with social changes and advances in technology, and its appearance has been changed three times. To prevent counterfeiting, the government issued guidelines for the production and issuance of ID cards in 1993, further tightening its control over the population.
Although the government has established safeguards, the requirement that ID cards store fingerprint data presents a new challenge to Taiwan, which, after all, claims that it is a country built on the idea of human rights.
The replacement of the new ID card was slated for July, but because of the handing down of Interpretation No. 599 by the Council of Grand Justices -- on whether fingerprint data violated human rights -- implementation has been postponed.
Given the widespread counterfeiting of IDs, a universal replacement of ID cards is a matter of urgency. As a result, the Cabinet has promised that if the Legislative Yuan insists all citizens (over the age of 14) submit a full set of fingerprints when applying for a card, it would support the legislature's position.
We should also dismiss the supposedly clear relationship between ID replacement and public order, because if we look at the history of the ID card since 1956, we see that it has changed appearance three times. But, on each occasion, criminals have managed to outwit authorities.
Therefore, in our rather inept efforts to make the ID card more effective through the use of technology, we should be wary of introducing a cure that is more vicious than the disease. This is especially the case as the government's management information systems have never been able to keep pace with criminal groups.
Therefore, even if fingerprint data for the ID card helps reduce crime, the government should also make an assessment of other costs, and look into the problem of civic education.
Taiwan is a quasi-capitalist society with a plentiful supply of corruption, fraud and exploitation. But it is virtue, love and compassion that are the characteristics that will make our nation grow. Taiwan and South Korea, who have comprehensive national identification systems, have them simply because they were formerly colonized by Japan. So why are they lagging behind Japan in civic virtue and public order?
No matter how "sacred" we regard the the national ID card, it remains a symbol of Taiwan's status as a colonial culture. Moreover, the bureaucratic culture which recognizes permits and not people, is also at the root of much crime in this country. It is also a way in which government officials can shirk responsibility. Taiwan must escape from under the shadow of an oppressive bureaucratic culture and strengthen the public's moral education. Only in this way can Taiwanese find their own way.
Chen Ming-chao is head of the Household Registration Office in Tayuan Township, Taoyuan County.
TRANSLATED BY LIN YA-TI