At the Press Club Brussels Europe scholars and activists denounced tax harassment and media slander against the Taiwan-based movement.
by Alessandro Amicarelli
On May 4, 2022, the Press Club Brussels Europe, where reporters who cover the European institutions usually gather, hosted a seminar on the theme “Abusive Taxation and Denial of Justice in Taiwan. Tai Ji Men: A Case of Arbitrary Taxation of Individual Gifts.” The seminar was organized following the United Nations World Press Freedom Day of May 3, and also introduced the May issue of the magazine “The European Times,” which features a two-full-page article on the Tai Ji Men case.
Rosita Šorytė, of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), introduced the seminar and summarized the Tai Ji Men case as one where a peaceful spiritual movement fell victim of a politically motivated crackdown. Even after Tai Ji Men had won its main court case up to Taiwan’s Supreme Court, which also ruled that it was not guilty of tax evasion, the National Taxation Bureau (NTB) continued to issue ill-founded tax bills.
Based on one of them, in 2020 it seized, auctioned off unsuccessfully, and then confiscated sacred land intended for a self-cultivation center of Tai Ji Men. Šorytė also noted the role of a manipulated press that slandered Tai Ji Men, something worth reflecting on when celebrating the World Press Freedom Day.
Šorytė presented a video featuring a Taiwanese puppet show where the traditional characters Wind and Water discuss COVID-19 and presents the practical tips Tai Ji Men has offered during the pandemic. This leads the character to discuss the Tai Ji Men case and the support Tai Ji Men receives from international scholars and Taiwanese experts. The characters conclude by appealing to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen to rectify the injustices perpetrated against Tai Ji Men.
Šorytė then introduced the first three speakers. Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, focused on the raids of December 19, 1996, when Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen raided nineteen Tai Ji Men academies and private homes of disciples (dizi). Introvigne suggested to analyze this incident through the 2016 book by Susan Palmer and Stuart Wright “Storming Zion,” where the two well-known scholars of new religious movements studied raids conducted against new religious movements in North America and Europe.
These raids all followed the same pattern: disproportionate use of heavily armed police, often in the early hours of the morning, presence of media and camera operators alerted by the prosecutors, and insignificant results—or no results at all—in terms of gathering evidence of crimes. The Tai Ji Men raids, Introvigne said, followed exactly the same scheme, which had already been used in Taiwan during the Martial Law period against a Pentecostal movement, the New Testament Church. He also emphasized the role of manipulated and corrupt media in supporting these raids, as evidenced by how Prosecutor Hou used the media to slander Tai Ji Men.
Marco Respinti, an Italian journalist and the director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, presented a memory and a tribute to American Senator Orrin Hatch (1934–2022), who died on April 23, 2022. He served as a U.S. senator for 42 years, and had two core political passions: religious liberty and tax reform. He argued that these two issues often go together, and that even in the United States taxes and leaking confidential tax information to the media were used by corrupt bureaucrats as a tool to discriminate against religious and spiritual organizations they did not like.
Just as it happened in Taiwan thanks to Tai Ji Men, Respinti said, in the U.S. Senator Hatch and a group known as Americans for Tax Reform organized massive protests. Unlike in Taiwan, in the United States that tax bureaucrats were abusing their power was recognized, and some tax reforms were voted and implemented. The experience of Senator Hatch, Respinti concluded, demonstrates that tax reform and the defense of freedom of religion or belief are inseparable, a lesson we should all apply to the Tai Ji Men case.
Eric Roux, the chairperson of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom, analyzed the Tai Ji Men case as a combination of four factors, which were also at work in other cases of religious discrimination. First, there were one or several “obsessed and fanatic” individuals in positions of power, in this case Prosecutor Hou and some tax bureaucrats.
Second, there was a political fear of losing control on a part of the population, which had been taught by a spiritual movement, in this case Tai Ji Men, to think independently. Third, as it may happen in democratic countries, judicial weapons failed, as the highest courts of the country sided against the prosecutor. Fourth, even after prosecutors had lost in court, tax weapons continued to be misused against a spiritual movement.
Thierry Valle, director of the ECOSOC-accredited NGO Coordination des associations et des particuliers pour la liberté de conscience, chaired the second session, and emphasized both the growth and the importance of the international network of scholars and human rights activists supporting Tai Ji Men. Valle first presented a video showing three Presidents who rang Tai Ji Men’s Bell of World Peace and Love.
They were Fradique de Menezes, then President of São Tomé and Príncipe, in 2001, Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, in 2002, and Leonel Fernández, President of the Dominican Republic, in 2005. In all three cases, the video showed how ringing the Bell inspired subsequent actions of the Presidents on behalf of peace. The video mentioned that President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, and King Mswati III of Swaziland also rang the Bell.
Valle then introduced the testimonies of six Tai Mi Men dizi. Susan Liu, an international hotel staff, recalled how she was hit by a literal avalanche of false news about Tai Ji Men when Prosecutor Hou started his campaign in 1996. The impact was so strong that for a moment she had doubts. Then she compared what the media reported with her personal experience as a dizi and the improvements she had experienced in her life after she joined Tai Ji Men, and concluded the negative reports could not be true.
However, she realized these slanderous reports caused deep suffering among the dizi and beyond, and urged reporters to keep conscience as their moral compass, and realize that by reporting fake news they can hurt many innocents.
Joanne Dai, an educator engaged in the promotion of literary education, recalled how she started participating in tax reform demonstrations when she was a sixth-grader, and has continued ever since. She said that explaining to people complicated issues of tax reform is not easy but she also believes that throughout the years the volunteers have become skilled in making themselves understood.
She compared the situation in Taiwan with Japan and United States, where popular movements for tax reform led to effective improvements of the tax system. This is a result not achieved yet in Taiwan, Dai said, but she expressed her confidence that the significant international support Tai Ji Men has gathered for its cause may eventually change the attitude of the Taiwanese authorities.
Cheng Yawen, a bank executive from London, focused on four aspects of the Tai Ji Men case. First, the unfair investigation by Prosecutor Hou, who also violated the duty of confidentiality by continuously leaking information to the media. Second, the abuse and violence during their detention on the Tai Ji Men leader, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, his wife, and two dizi who had been arrested.
Third, the tax discrimination perpetrated by singling out Tai Ji Men while in the case of countless other martial arts and qigong centers in Taiwan nobody denied that what disciples give to masters are non-taxable gifts rather than tuition fees. Fourth, the police abuse against Tai Ji Men protesters as evidenced by the September 19, 2020 case of the arrest of Ms. Huang, a peaceful demonstrator.
Valle then presented a historical video on tax reform and the reorganization of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the United States. The video showed the expansion of the IRS’ powers during the course of the 20th century, which produced serious abuse. The protests led to tax reform and a better system of protection of taxpayers’ rights.
Sonia Wang, a high school teacher, noted that Taiwan ranks number 43 for press freedom in the world, which does not make it one of the worst countries but shows there is still much room for improvement. She mentioned that more than 400 media pieces slandering Tai Ji Men were published in Taiwan, most of which came from the illegal campaigns of prosecutor Hou. Freedom of the press, she said, should also mean truthfulness and accountability of the media, an aspect that was forgotten during the long slander campaign against Tai Ji Men in Taiwan.
Tseng Ajong, Vice President of a recruitment agency, insisted that journalists should act with conscience, which they do not always do as they may be either corrupt or intimidated by those in power. She gave three examples. The first concerned the case of an unpaid traffic ticket of about $600 that led Taiwan’s Administrative Enforcement Agency to auction off the house of the violator, worth some $83,000.
In the end, the auction was called off but some media covered uncritically a press conference by the spokesperson of the Administrative Enforcement Agency who tried to defend the Agency’s action by slandering the violator. The other two examples were about the coverage of Prosecutor Hou’s campaign against Tai Ji Men and the 2020 arrest of Ms. Huang. In all these cases, it was later established that the versions of the facts presented by the authorities to the media were false, yet some journalists had accepted them at face value.
Liu Yin, managing director of a biotechnology company in the Netherlands, reported about her exciting experience as a dizi, who also accompanied Dr. Hong to Bahrain in 2017 during one of his world tours to promote the International Day of Conscience. A darker aspect of her personal story was the suffering the 1996 crackdown and slander campaign by Prosecutor Hou caused to her and her family in Taiwan.
Liu also compared the Tai Ji Men case with the scandal of childcare benefits in the country where she lives, the Netherlands. In both cases tax bureaucrats exceeded their power and were guilty of serious mistakes. However, unlike in Taiwan, in the Dutch case the system proved to be capable of correcting its mistakes in a few years, and the parents who had been unjustly accused of having cheated on childcare benefits were recognized innocent and indemnified.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, offered the conclusions of the seminar and came back to the significance of the World Press Freedom Day. He noted that there is “zero press freedom in Russia” to report about the war in Ukraine and, when a free press is absent, the void is filled with propaganda and fake news. On a smaller scale, Fautré said, this also happened in the Tai Ji Men case, where the role of manipulated media was important. When Prosecutor Hou started his campaign, there were almost no media prepared to tell the truth about Tai Ji Men but there were quite a few willing to broadcast the prosecutor’s lies.
The webinar concluded with two videos. The first was the sixth installment of the Tai Ji Men video series “Unbreakable Bonds,” which presents a very detailed chronicle of the case. The installment analyzes the exponential growth of the tax bills the NTB issued against Tai Ji Men, and explains why they were ill-founded, illegal, and even based on falsified documents. The second, “A Prayer for Peace,” showing different authorities ringing Tai Ji Men’s Bell of World Peace and Love, and concluding with a song asking the world to “put down the weapons of hatred” and embrace love and peace—a timely message in our time of war.