The Tai Ji Men case is a distressing example of Taiwan’s failure to live up to its democratic promises.
by Donald Westbrook*
*A paper presented at the hybrid seminar “Effective Parliamentarism and the Tai Ji Men Case,” organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on July 1, 2022, at the Renaissance Hotel, Washington DC, after the International Day of Parliamentarism, June 30.
I had the pleasure earlier this year of joining Massimo Introvigne on a visit to the Tai Ji Men academy in Walnut, California. We participated in a hybrid conference there as well, and before and afterward we were fortunate enough to tour the academy, learn more about TJM beliefs and practices, and enjoy a beautiful cultural performance and martial arts demonstration. It is a pleasure to once again participate in a hybrid conference that connects scholars and activists around the world—this time hosted in Washington, DC following the success and consciousness raising of the 2022 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit.
Also, I should note as usual that I am a religious studies scholar and not a lawyer or human rights activist—not that these categories necessarily are (or ought to be) mutually exclusive. But I do of course want to preface my remarks with this disclaimer because my knowledge of the Tai Ji Men case is informed by this perspective, especially as an American observer and as a researcher who teaches and works in the fields of religious studies, history, sociology, and even information science.
That all being said, I find the Tai Ji Men case and recent developments to represent a distressing example of Taiwan’s failure to live up to its democratic promises, processes, and ideals. In many ways, it represents, as Massimo Introvigne has written in a recent article in Bitter Winter, a missed opportunity. It is a missed opportunity with respect to legal rights, human rights, and religious freedom and belief, certainly, but it is also a missed opportunity for Taiwan to treat its citizens in a fair and equitable manner in relation to taxation and the right to protest. And it is a missed opportunity for Taiwan to realize its full potential as a democracy, in which pluralism and religious/cultural/spiritual diversity are valued and respected according to both the letter and the spirit of the law.
Taiwan’s legal and tax authorities must truly practice what they preach and not privilege (or penalize) one group over another. My research into Tai Ji Men and its membership is still in its early stages, and I look forward to continuing this line of work in the coming months and hopefully years. But even at this point, I am quite impressed by the dizi (disciples) I have had the privilege to meet, and the range of psychological, social, and spiritual benefits that TJM members receive in their practices and daily lives. I firmly believe that a fuller and more empathetic understanding of a group and its practices can be a powerful antidote to intolerance, prejudice, and misunderstanding.
A focus on members themselves humanizes rather than demonizes, it opens the door for dialogue rather than monologue, and it fosters trust and transparency that is essential for individuals and groups to communicate, cooperate, and move past differences in a productive manner. In fact, I suspect that religious and cultural literacy may very well be one deciding factor that could help contribute to a satisfactory resolution of the Tai Ji Men tax case, as misunderstanding and prejudice slowly but surely gives way to understanding, tolerance, and justice.
The good news is that Tai Ji Men is quite open to outsiders, from what I have seen, and there are numerous convenient ways to learn more about the group—online, on social media, and in print publications. One example is a book I recently read and enjoyed titled “Embodying the Wisdom of Tai Ji: Achieving Inner Peace and Balance.” It offers an excellent introduction to Tai Ji psychology, and includes a great variety of perspectives and testimonials from dizi. Unlike other recent Tai Ji Men publications that directly relate to the court case—such as “Who Stole Their Youth?” (2021) and “The Tai Ji Men Case in Taiwan” (2021)—“Embodying the Wisdom of Tai Ji” (2022) seeks to highlight the benefits of the dizi in their everyday pursuit of harmony, balance, peace, health, and well being. I recommend reading it for yourself.
I expect, in a somewhat similar vein, that the scales of justice will balance out in a way that is fair and favorable to Tai Ji Men and serve as a precedent and foundation for Taiwan to improve its record on human rights and religious freedom. Perhaps, then, even more powerfully, Tai Ji Men will carve out for itself—and other minority groups—a lasting legacy of peace, justice, and harmony.