At National Taiwan University, more than twenty scholarly papers discussed different features of the long-lasting case and suggested possible solutions.
by Massimo Introvigne
On January 9, 2024, two days before Taiwan’s Judicial Day, January 11, a number of organizations including the U.N. ECOSOC-accredited NGO Association of World Citizens, the Taiwan Association for Financial Criminal Law Study, the Financial and Economic Research Center of National Chung Cheng University, Action Alliance to Redress 1219, the Tax and Law Reform League, and the Movement for “An Era of Conscience” organized at National Taiwan University a 2024 Judicial Day Forum on “Review and Vision of Judicial Independence: The Tai Ji Men Case.”
The conference was introduced by reminding the audience that Judicial Day commemorates the treaty signed on January 11, 1943, which eliminated the privileges granted in China to citizens of the United States and the United Kingdom by the so-called Unequal Treaty and marked the foundation of a modern and just legal system in the Republic of China. The Tai Ji Men case, however, demonstrates that this process is still not completed today.
Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the Shifu (Grand Master) of Tai Ji Men, quoted the ancient saying that “Man follows the Earth, Earth follows the Heaven, the Heavens follows the Dao, and the Dao follows what is natural.” This is the basis of natural law and of universal human rights all women and men of conscience can recognize, since “laws are based on nature, statutes follow the laws of Heaven, and laws follow humanity. They are born from the principles of Heaven, and conscience is the only arbiter between Heaven and Earth, the final judgement of natural law, and the passport to Heaven.” When conscience is not followed, Dr. Hong said, natural law is violated, and injustices are perpetrated. The Tai Ji Men case is a textbook example of injustice, Dr. Hong concluded, and conversely its solution will be the sign of a return to freedom and conscience.
The keynote speeches were given by Eileen Barker, O.B.E., Professor emerita of Sociology at the London School of Economics, and by me. Barker proposed a distinction between “Before States” and “After States.” “Before States” preventively crack down on spiritual groups they believe may threaten the government “before” they commit any crime. “After States” only punish crimes “after” they have been committed. In theory, totalitarian regimes are “Before States” and democracies are “After States.” In practice, Barker stated, the situation is less clear. For example, France is a democracy but its government-sponsored campaigns against groups stigmatized as “cults” are more typical of a “Before State.” Taiwan is also a democracy but its attitude to Tai Ji Men also resembles the behavior of totalitarian “Before States.” Barker called the Tai Ji Men case a “shameful situation” where the rule of law was “perverted by perverse motives.” She expressed the hope that this “most unfortunate anomaly” would soon be rectified.
I discussed the origins of the expression “rule of law,” noting that it was coined with reference to freedom of religion or belief. The first author to use the words “rule of law” was a Church of Scotland, or “Kirk,” minister, Samuel Rutherford. He coined the expression in 1644, as part of a campaign against British King Charles I, who was trying to merge the Kirk into the Church of England, thus ending its autonomy and denying its freedom of religion. However, as many other excellent principles such as democracy and freedom, also the idea of the “rule of law” was born in an ambiguous context. Rutherford wanted religious liberty for his own church but wrote a book arguing that the rule of law should not apply to Roman Catholics as they were dangerous heretics. Today, Introvigne said, we acknowledge Rutherford’s role in creating the formula “rule of law” but generally do not agree with his idea that certain religions should be excluded from its protection.
However, the application of the rule of law is still problematic in some democratic countries when it comes to religious and spiritual minorities. The Tai Ji Men case, Introvigne emphasized, is a typical example of how in a democratic system such as Taiwan, the powers that be may still exclude spiritual groups from the full benefits of the rule of law. “It is not too late, I concluded, and it will never be too early to restore justice for Tai Ji Men.”
The second session opened with a video on the Tai Ji Men case and the sad story of the Lainan Street Tai Ji Men Academy in Kaohsiung, placed under a restrictive injunction as a by-product of the Tai Ji Men case and returned to the disposal of the movement only in 2020. By then, it had been invaded by homeless people who had stolen all the equipment and furniture and even dismantled the windows.
The session was chaired by Cheng Chung-Mo, former Supreme Court Justice and Vice President of Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan, who introduced the topic of judicial independence. He noted that it emerged very slowly in Taiwan’s legal history, and there was no independence of the judges nor a concept of the rule of law under the Martial Law. From the three Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to the American Constitution, Cheng said, the rule of law developed to also protect freedom of religion or belief. The Tai Ji Men case, however, demonstrates how difficult it is to respect the rule of law in practice. Cheng promised to use his personal authority to help solve the Tai Ji Men case, expressing the hope that the new presidential administration will bring new ideas and new solutions.
Hwang Giin-Tarng, a Professor at National Taiwan University and former Minister without Portfolio of the Examination Yuan, reported about some encouraging development with administrative and political authorities, showing that they are aware of the case and willing to speak in favor of Tai Ji Men. However, good words are not enough, and legal solutions should be found to rectify the case, Hwang said.
Gee Keh-Chang, a Professor at Soochow University, mentioned the new discipline of “financial sociology,” which should interact with tax law. He noted that Taiwanese authorities continue to object that the “final” 2006 Supreme Administrative Court decision against Tai Ji Men concerning the 1992 tax bill cannot be reversed. However, he said, even if the court cannot reform the decision, the administrative agencies and the authorities can always rectify its effects, and this is explicitly provided for by Taiwanese law. If this does not happen in the Tai Ji Men case, Gee said, many other religious groups will be at risk of being harassed and discriminated.
Chen Tze-Lung, chairman of the Taiwan Association for Financial Criminal Law Study and a co-initiator of the Tax and Legal Reform League, mentioned four “traps” behind the Tai Ji Men case and the systemic problems of tax injustice in Taiwan. The first three traps lead politicians to control or unduly influence the legislative, judiciary, and financial systems, while the fourth allows rogue bureaucrats to hijack the administration. As a result, an “underground emperor” invisible to citizens controls the system. The Tai Ji Men case, Chen said, is one of the worst examples of how the four traps and the “underground emperor” work in Taiwan. All in this case was false, Chen indicated: fake events, fake crimes, fake tax bills, fake investigations, fake news leaked to the media. Expose the falsehoods and reveal the truth is the only way to escape the traps and solve the case, he concluded.
Lee Hwai-Tzong, a Professor at National Chung Hsing University, returned to the question of the alleged irreformability of the “final” decision confirming the ill-founded 1992 tax bill against Tai Ji Men. Lee said that the National Enforcement Agency, which confiscated the Miaoli land of Tai Ji Men, can always rescind a decision, except when this would result in significant damage to the state or society, which is clearly not the case for Tai Ji Men’s land. Lee also suggested that the Tai Ji Men case may be an opportunity to introduce changes in the existing laws.
Zhang Jing, chairman of the Judicial Revolution Party, continued the analysis of the previous speakers, and explored how Article 117 of the Administrative Procedure Act can be applied to the Tai Ji Men case. Article 117 provides that, “The authority rendering an unlawful administrative disposition may withdraw ex officio the disposition in whole or in part even after the lapse of the statutory period of remedy; the same may be done by its superior authority; provided, however, that no withdrawal may be made under any of the following circumstances: 1. Where withdrawal will result in serious jeopardy to the public interest; 2. Where the beneficiaries have committed any of the acts specified in article 119 hereof [bribery, false statement, or gross negligence], making them undeserving of the protection and the benefit granted to them by this administrative disposition […].”
Tsai Fu-Chiang, attorney for Tai Jai Men, added that when false witnesses and false evidence were used, a retrial can also be sought. He insisted on the main falsehood used by both the prosecutor who started the Tai Ji Men case and the National Taxation Bureau. They considered the content of the “red envelopes” customarily given by disciples (dizi) to their Shifu as tuition fees for a non-existent cram school rather than as gifts. That there was no cram school and no tuition fees has been affirmed by different Taiwanese authorities and courts several times. Once this is admitted, then that the 1992 tax bill and all decisions about it were based on a false premise and false information is also established.
A question-and-answer session followed, where the speakers discussed possible practical solutions of the Tai Ji Men case, both legal and political. Former Justice Cheng proposed that after the elections a panel of experts should be officially appointed and entrusted with proposing a solution of the Tai Ji Men case.
The third session was opened by Dr. Hong, who argued that when a country moves from a non-democratic to a democratic regime the laws and the very notions of justice and human rights should change. However, this does not always happen, as evidenced by the problems in Taiwan discussed in this conference. Only by returning to conscience, Dr. Hong concluded, can a truly democratic justice be implemented. Conscience also brings to citizens happiness and joy, he added.
Chang Kuei-Mei, Professor at Chinese Culture University and former member of the Control Yuan, chaired the session, whose first speaker was Lin Wen-Jou, Professor at National Chung Cheng University and former judge of the Supreme Administrative Court. It was the Supreme Administrative Court that in 2006 rendered the “final” judgment confirming the 1992 tax bill. Chang explained that the conditions for a retrial are very strict, yet in the Tai Ji Men case some possibilities may exist.
Wu Ching-Chin, Professor at Aletheia University, insisted on the principle that there cannot be two penalties for the same act. The principle is not explicitly stated in the Constitution of Taiwan, he said, but according to scholars derives from it and thus has constitutional status. In the Tai Ji Men case, this principle was violated as the criminal case (where all defendants were found not guilty) and the tax bills both intended to punish the same (non-existing) tax evasion.
Yuan Tsung-Yen, attorney and former Division Chief Judge at Taiwan High Court Taichung Branch Court, noted that most politicians hail the independence of the judiciary in the electoral campaigns but then forget about it once they have been elected. We need, Yuan said, to rely on judges of conscience and integrity, who would act correctly notwithstanding the pressures.
Chen Yi-Nan, a co-initiator of the Tax and Legal Reform League and an arbitrator, emphasized the role of illegality, lack of conscience, and corruption in the Tai Ji Men case. He also mentioned the distorted system of bonuses, quickly given to tax bureaucrats when they rightly or wrongly enforce tax bills, as a source of corruption that was also at work in the Tai Ji Men case.
Professor Tsai Cheng-An, from Shi Chien University, chaired the fourth session and introduced Lukas Lien, contract professor at Osnabrück University in Germany and also a co-initiator of the Tax and Legal Reform League. Lien noted how well-known now the Tai Ji Men case is in international human rights and freedom of religion or belief circles. He asked how this global support can be harnessed to solve the case. He answered that the international human rights and rule of law principles and how they work in Western democracies should be made more familiar to Taiwanese politicians and administrative leaders, who often quote but do not fully understand them.
Wei Suz-Tsung from Fu Jen Catholic University, pointed out that the bureaucrats who commit illegal acts, be they prosecutors or tax officers, are not punished in Taiwan even when the unlawfulness of their actions is demonstrated and is confirmed by the Control Yuan and other high authorities. This is what happened in the Tai Ji Men case. Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, who acted illegally in a number of instances, was even promoted. Nobody was punished for the tragedies of the Lainan Street Academy in Kaohsiung and the Swiss Mountain Villa, which Tai Ji Men has now decided to commemorate by placing monuments in the relevant locations. “For how long can the people still tolerate this situation?” Wei asked.
Tsai Wei-Jie, former Chairman of New Taipei City Certified Public Bookkeepers Association, and Head of Xinjie CPB and Land Administration Agency, insisted that Tai Ji Men cannot be regarded as a “cram school,” although it was considered as such by the National Taxation Bureau in order to tax the gifts received by its Shifu as tuition fees. Tsai noted that no other martial arts or qigong group in Taiwan has been considered a cram school and he has never met any Tai Ji Men dizi who regarded what they gave to Dr. Hong as tuition fees for a cram school rather than gifts. Yet, despite decades of protest, justice is not restored to Tai Ji Men, Tsai said. He also praised Tai Ji Men’s efforts for a legal and tax reform, which extend beyond their case and benefit many citizens of Taiwan.
Lin Chun-Ling, Chairman of the Chinese Taoist Tradition Alliance, offered a different perspective, commenting on the existence of a Heavenly Law that human laws should respect. For twenty years, Lin said, he had followed Tai Ji Men and their case and witnessed how they embody these principles and remain faithful to the Heavenly Law even in the face of great adversities. At the same time, as a Taoist and a citizen of Taiwan, he suffers when he sees that the Heavenly Law has repeatedly been violated in the Tai Ji Men case.
Wu Chih-Kuang, Professor of the Department of Law and Dean of the School of Law at Fu Jen Catholic University, discussed the relationship between religion and the law in Eastern and Western religions. He quoted French sociologist Émile Durkheim who famously said that religion sacralizes and formalizes the social order. This statement, however, is not automatically applicable to Taiwan, Wu said, where the largest portion of the religious field is unorganized and would be defined in the West as folk religion. Also, the great theological debates of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam were rare, Wu said, in Chinese religion, which was mostly interested in the practical benefits religious practices might offer. These differences should lead to a broader definition of freedom of religion or belief in the Chinese context, Wu concluded.
In his conclusions of the forum, Tsai Cheng-An insisted on the notion of transitional justice. According to United Nations documents, this notion includes four principles: (1) investigating abuse of power and pursuing the truth, (2) compensating the victims, (3) punishing the perpetrators, and (4) ensuring that abuses of power do not occur again in a democratic environment. If correctly applied, Chen said, these principles would restore justice to Tai Ji Men. However, this has not happened so far.
The richness of the papers and the academic stature of the scholars who participated confirmed that the study of the Tai Ji Men case is now emerging as an academic subfield of its own, at the intersection of religious liberty studies, new religious and spiritual movement studies, and the study of tax law. All participants expressed the hope that the study will also generate practical results and a solution of a case that has remained unsolved for more than 27 years.