International Day of Conscience is always a special day for Tai Ji Men—and for those who support their fight for justice.
by Daniela Bovolenta
April 5 is the International Day of Conscience, a United Nations day of observance introduced in 2019 after an international campaign in which Dr. Hong Tao Tze, the leader of Tai Ji Men, played a crucial role. On April 5, 2022, CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers organized one of their bi-monthly webinars on the Tai Ji Men case. The title, “A Question of Conscience: The Tai Ji Men Case,” underlined the connection between conscience and human rights—the human rights that both are unceasingly promoted by Dr. Hong in his world tours on behalf of conscience and were systematically violated in the Tai Ji Men case.
Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, introduced the webinar discussing the relations between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Day of Conscience. Human rights, Respinti said, obviously existed before the Declaration, and the failure to acknowledge their foundation in human nature and human conscience led to their continuing violation even after most countries in the world had signed the Universal Declaration. For this reason, the United Nations supplemented the already existing Human Rights Day with the International Day of Conscience. It is paradoxical, Respinti said, that Tai Ji Men, which was so much instrumental in promoting this universal acknowledgment of conscience, continued to be persecuted by non-conscientious bureaucrats in Taiwan.
Respinti then introduced the third video of the series “Unbreakable Bonds”—the first two installments were presented in previous webinars—, which reconstructs in very precise details the story of the Tai Ji Men case, and presented the international speakers.
Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, observed that in Italian literature what is possibly the most famous novel of the 20th century is called “Zeno’s Conscience,” thus including the word “conscience” in its title. However, the novel in fact portrays the failure of the life of the main character, Zeno, which happens because he is unable to recognize conscience as his moral compass. The novel, Introvigne said, is an opportunity to meditate on the historical importance of Dr. Hong’s campaigns on behalf of conscience, which led to the adoption of the International Day of Conscience as a day of observance by the United Nations. These achievements, Introvigne concluded, also came from Dr. Hong’s personal and painful experience of how much damage officers who are not guided by conscience may inflict on innocent citizens.
Stephen Enada, president and co-founder of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON), a Baptist pastor, and a well-known human rights activist, underlined the spiritual foundations of the notion of conscience. He noted that conscience should be educated, and cited the Tai Ji Men case as an example of how the “uneducated conscience” of some bureaucrats created injustice and suffering. Enada also mentioned “the tragedy of inaction” on the Tai Ji Men case. Although dozens of scholars and human rights activists did their best to support Tai Ji Men, Enada noted that politicians both in Taiwan and internationally, who were told about the case, did not act effectively enough. More, he said, should now be done.
Mario De Paoli, an attorney from Torino, Italy, and a member of the Fedinsieme (Faiths Together) inter-religious and inter-cultural committee, also insisted on the importance of conscience, including in the legal field. He saluted Dr. Hong’s work that put conscience again at the center of international and United Nations discourse. He then revisited the main incidents in the Tai Ji Men case, noting both its injustice and his persuasion that only a return to conscience may build the framework within which the case can hopefully one day be solved.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, reminded the audience of how much his own experience as a former teacher, a human rights activist, and a world traveler on behalf of justice, has in common with the stories Tai Ji Men dizi share in these webinars. He then introduced eight witnesses.
Charlotte Lee, a lawyer from Taiwan who serves as a human rights observer for the Taiwan branch of the Association of World Citizens, offered a detailed review of the fate of Tai Ji Men’s properties during the Tai Ji Men case. Prosecutor Hou Kuan-jen, who first instigated the case, froze 67 plots of land in the Miaoli mountains, the Swiss Mountain Villa Community in Xi-Zhi, New Taipei City, and six Tai Ji Men academies. A prohibition of disposal was subsequently attached to the land and Tai Ji Men academies, and later in 2003 Dr. Hong had to give as guarantee, to seek administrative relief, 56 pieces of land reserved for a self-cultivation center in the Miaoli mountain, the Swiss Mountain Villa Community, and five academies.
After Dr. Hong and his co-defendants were found not guilty of any wrongdoing, including tax evasion, by the Supreme Court in 2007, the National Taxation Bureau (NTB), Lee explained, failed to rescind the tax bill and return the collateral as required by law, until in 2020 the land in Miaoli was auctioned off and then confiscated. Since the value of that land exceeded what was allegedly due to the NTB, Dr. Hong’s property in the Swiss Mountain Villa community and his other seized property were finally returned to him, although both the Swiss Mountain Villa Community and the Kaohsiung Academy on Lainan Street were in a bad shape. Lee also listed the various irregularities and breaches of law of which Prosecutor Hou and later the NTB were guilty during their crusade against Tai Ji Men.
Cheng Hsuan-Ming, a product manager in a technology company, shared an experience he had as a child, when he was about to drown in the water of a creek and barely escaped. This gave him a sense of his own mortality uncommon at his age, which led him to questions about the meaning of life. Two people guided him to find the right answers, he said, Dr. Hong and Jian Yongsong. Jian was a survivor of the White Terror and a founder of the Taiwan chapter of Amnesty International. Both Jian and Dr. Hong then became the victims of ill-founded tax actions, Cheng said. They both answered with calm, dignity, and firmness, Cheng added, teaching him and society in general a lesson about the centrality of conscience.
Lung Ogle, a retired English teacher from Florida, added details to the story of the Tai Ji Men case, and mentioned that on April 10, 1997, Dr. Hong was brought to interrogation handcuffed. This was actually illegal, and Prosecutor Hou was told that he had to remove the handcuffs. He did so reluctantly, sneering: “Bailiff, be on guard! The defendant possesses kung fu.” It seems Hou was a victim of his own propaganda, and really believed that Dr. Hong was able to raise goblins and magically control other persons, which was obviously absurd. Dr. Hong was eventually vindicated and declared innocent up to the Supreme Court but, as Lung noted, the tax case went on, casting doubts on Taiwan’s democratic system.
Damon Tsai, a Tai Ji Men dizi and product director at an American semiconductor company, shared his excitement for having been part of the process guided by Dr. Hong that led to the resolution, introduced by the Kingdom of Bahrain, which was adopted by the United Nations and declared April 5 the International Day of Conscience. Tsai was in Bahrain when Dr. Hong visited the country in 2017 and in Vienna on April 5, 2019, when several political and cultural authorities met with Dr. Hong, three months before Bahrain’s resolution was officially adopted by the United Nations. Tsai contrasted the great respect Dr. Hong is shown internationally, and in fact in Taiwan as well, including by several Presidents, with the attitude of some rogue Taiwanese bureaucrats who violated his and Tai Ji Men’s human rights.
Jennifer Hung, a dizi from California who holds a doctorate in business administration, underlined the role another country, together with Bahrain, played on the path leading to the United Nations’ proclamation of the International Day of Conscience, the Republic of Kiribati. Both its former President, and later Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador to the United States, Teburoro Tito, and current President, Taneti Maamau, became strong supporters of the International Day of Conscience. In 2018, Hung participated in other meetings preparing the resolution on the International Day of Conscience, gathering the support of several countries.
Like other speakers, Hung asked how it is possible that a group such as Tai Ji Men, which has greatly contributed to a movement for a global return to conscience, continues to be discriminated and persecuted in Taiwan. She answered that the root cause lies in the remnants of Taiwan’s former authoritarian system, which are still at work in the tax bureaucracy.
Mitchell Hu is a 17-year-old 12th-grade student. When he was 14, he reported, he traveled with Dr. Hong to India to attend the International Conference of Chief Justices of the World. He traveled to other countries with Tai Ji Men too, and was particularly impressed when he met Anthony Carmona, former President of Trinidad and Tobago, who also endorsed the Declaration of International Day of Conscience. Hu shared the story of his grandfather, the head of a steel company, who was wronged by tax officials and became so angry that he had a stroke. The incident persuaded Hu that the Tai Ji Men case is not isolated and the tax system in Taiwan needs a deep reform.
Gill Wang, a student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, reported how she learned to cultivate her conscience since she was a four-year-old child, under the guidance of Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men. Although she is only 21, she said, she has already had the opportunity of participating in several international events, first spreading Dr. Hong’s message of conscience, peace, and love, and then protesting against the injustices of the Tai Ji Men case. Although being naturally somewhat shy, Wang played drums in cultural events and even learned how to use a large loudspeaker to share information about the Tai Ji Men case to passers-by during the protests. She believes, she said, this is what conscience is all about: it tells you that you can do difficult things for causes you truly believe in.
Andy Lu, a student and Tai Ji Men dizi, reviewed the tax issue and explained in detail why the NTB maintained its tax bill for the year 1992 even after it had agreed to reduce the tax bills for all the other contested years to zero. Lu deconstructed the rationale of the NTB demonstrating that keeping the 1992 tax bill was both irrational and illegal. It also ignored that it is actually the NTB that owes money to Dr. Hong for illegal taxation and wrongful tax enforcement, Lu said.
Alessandro Amicarelli, a human rights attorney in London and the President of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief, offered the conclusions of the webinar. He traced back the idea of conscience to the teachings of the great religions of the world. These teachings, Amicarelli said, are also in their own ways political, because they insist that there is a sacred space of conscience that coincides with freedom, and which governments should respect and leave alone. Ultimately, Amicarelli said, this is what the Tai Ji Men case is all about. It can be described as an attempt by Taiwan’s government to intrude into the private, sacred sphere of the internal activities of Tai Ji Men dizi regulated by their conscience. Surely, he noted, laws, including tax laws, should be respected, but their application should in turn respect the inviolable space of freedom and conscience to what all citizens are entitled.
The webinar ended with the video “A Prayer for Peace,” featuring images of authorities ringing Tai Ji Men’s Bell of World Peace and Love, and a song asking the world to “put down the weapons of hatred” and embrace love and peace so that “the light of hope” can shine—a timely song considering the events the world is now going through.