In the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, scholars and witnesses reflected on the case.
by Daniela Bovolenta
Every month, CESNUR, the parent organization of Bitter Winter, and the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers co-organize a webinar on the Tai Ji Men case, normally on one of the international days celebrated by the United Nations. August 22 was the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, and four webinars in English (plus another five in Chinese), catering to audiences in different time zones, discussed the “administrative violence” against Tai Ji Men.
Camelia Marin from the human rights NGO Soteria International introduced the first webinar, noting that the concept of “fair trial” has expanded in recent years. While once international human rights law only focused on the right of defendants in criminal cases to be tried fairly, today it is generally acknowledged that the right to a fair trial can be violated also in civil and administrative cases, including tax cases. What happened to Tai Ji Men, Marin said, is an egregious example where the right to a fair trial, while ultimately affirmed in the criminal proceedings, was not guaranteed to the defendants in the tax case. It was, she concluded, also a form of violence and persecution based on belief.
A video (played in the other seminars as well) presented the “return to Washington DC” of Tai Ji Men. 21 years ago, Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy joyfully went to the U.S. capital to present a cultural performance and promote peace and love. In 2021, Tai Ji Men had to return to Washington to denounce the injustices vested on them during the 25-year-long tax case.
Massimo Introvigne, managing director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, noted that the broad definition of religion- or belief-based violence adopted in 2019 by the United Nations resolution instituting the International Day was not limited to physical violence against persons, but also included violence against properties of religious or spiritual groups motivated by ideological hostility. In the case of Tai Ji Men, Introvigne noted, there was both physical violence—when Dr Hong and his co-defendants were arrested and detained, and later when police mistreated a female protester—and massive violence against properties by the National Taxation Office and the National Enforcement Agency.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Humans Right Without Frontiers, discussed different forms of violence against minority religions, some perpetrated by privates and some by institutions, including tax administrations. Fautré reminded how in previous webinars cases from France were quoted where the state tried to destroy groups labeled as “cults” through tax bills later recognized as illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. He also mentioned that in Kerala, India, anti-Catholics supported by some bureaucrats and judges try to take out the tax exemption granted to Catholic priests and religious orders—the case is now before the Supreme Court. The Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan is another example of how what Fautré called “evil interests” use taxes as a tool against minorities they try to destroy.
Eric Roux, chairperson of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom, called Taiwan “one of the great democracies in the world,” which makes even less understandable how dishonest civil servants were allowed to bring the persecution of Tai Ji Men to its bitter end. Injustices in democratic countries, Roux said, are worse than those occurring in totalitarian regimes, because they may lower the standards of democracy in the entire world.
Christine Mirre, of the ECOSOC-accredited NGO CAP-LC (Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience), called the attention on the multiple injustices perpetrated against Tai Ji Men by rogue bureaucrats, and introduced a roundtable, preceded by a video (played in all seminars) in which host Miranda Liu gave voice to Tai Ji Men dizi who described the happy life in the movement before the crackdown, the “stormy 1996” when the persecution began, and the long protests as an act of love towards Tai Ji Men, Taiwan, and justice.
The Venerable Ming Kuang, abbot of the Buddhist Haiming Temple, and chairman of the Conference of Religions of the Republic of China (Taiwan), mentioned the high moral responsibilities of those serving the government. Buddhism teaches that “there is great merit in correcting one’s mistakes,” he noted, but it seems bureaucrats who acted against Tai Ji Men in Taiwan never accepted this lesson. The abbot said he has participated in many events about the Tai Ji Men case, not only out of his respect for Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men, but also because what happened to them endangers religious freedom for all believers.
Professor Chang Chia-Lin from Taipei’s Aletheia University listed the different acts recognized as violations of freedom of religion or belief in the laws of democratic countries and international treaties. Taiwan, he said, recognizes theoretically the same principles, but during its long transition to democracy did not always put them into practice. The Tai Ji Men case is one example, he concluded, in fact the worst example in Taiwan’s history, of how principles of freedom of religion or belief were not respected at different levels of the government and state bureaucracy. It is also a cause of “national embarrassment” for Taiwan, he concluded.
Kenny Yap, a dizi from Malaysia who has lived for 33 years in Taiwan, detailed the health and spiritual benefits he, his wife, and his father derived from Tai Ji Men. He explained how totally absurd for them was the claim that Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men were guilty of tax evasion because what dizi gave to their shifu in “red envelopes” was considered by the National Taxation Bureau as “tuition fees” for a “cram school,” rather than as gifts. Eventually, judges in Taiwan recognized that they were gifts, and that a “cram school” never existed—but some tax bureaucrats refused to follow even their own country’s courts.
Lara Huang, a dizi who works as a diabetologist and endocrinologist in Taiwan, told her story of discouragement when she realized that a good part of the global diabetes population of 425 million is deprived of proper care because they lack medical insurance or money to pay for the necessary treatments. When she joined Tai Ji Men, she regained hope, and learned how to make her work happy through qigong, self-cultivation, and volunteer action for world peace and justice. She also compared COVID-19 and the “legal tax virus” whose effects were at work in the Tai Ji Men case, which, if not kept in check, may destroy Taiwan’s health and lead to “economic paralysis.”
Emma Chen, a Taiwan dentist who joined Tai Ji Men at the age of 4, together with 17 family members, also reported the benefits she derived from the movement. She quoted the saying that “first-class doctors treat the nation, second-class doctors treat people, and third-class doctors treat diseases.” While this principle advocates a humanistic approach to health care, it is also a lesson for public servants. She said that, because of the tax case, she fells as a “religious persecution victim,” but also hopes that the government will finally realize that solving the Tai Ji Men case and return the confiscated land is the best way to affirm the image of Taiwan as a true democracy.
Matthew Chen, a 20-year-old dizi and a student at Boston’s Northwestern University, also explained the health benefits of practicing qigong in the Tai Ji Men Academy. He told how in the U.S. he discovered the 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who inspired many with his theories of civil disobedience, including to unjust actions by tax officers. He mentioned that many Taiwanese friends who went to study in the U.S. do not plan to return to Taiwan, and suggested this might have something to do with the oppressive and corrupt tax system prevailing there.
Rosita Šorytė, a member of the Scientific Committee of FOB (European Federation for Freedom of Belief) and associate editor of Bitter Winter, concluded the first webinar by commenting on Matthew Chen’s speech that the fact that young people start leaving the country without plans to return is a bad omen for Taiwan. We just saw in Afghanistan, Šorytė said, what happens when young people lose hope in their country, and would not make sacrifices to defend it. It is unconceivable, Šorytė said, that Taiwanese politicians keep not understanding the damage to Taiwan’s reputation created by the Tai Ji Men case, which in many other countries would have been concluded long ago through a political solution imposed by the government to reluctant bureaucrats and tax officers.
The second webinar was introduced by Alessandro Amicarelli, president of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief. He said that the rule of law has been violated and should now be reestablished in Taiwan in the Tai Ji Men case. He first introduced Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, and former chair of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). She mentioned concerns about religious liberty in Afghanistan under the new regime of the Taliban, and in other countries of the world. Most of the violations of freedom of religion or belief, Lantos said, happens in non-democratic countries. Unfortunately, however, there are similar incidents also in contexts of democracy, she added, and both the discrimination against some groups with the pretext of COVID-19 in South Korea and the actions against Tai Ji Men by despotic tax bureaucrats in Taiwan are examples of violations of freedom of religion or belief in countries we otherwise admire for their democratic development.
Hans Noot, president of the Gerard Noodt Foundation for Freedom of Religion or Belief in the Netherlands, noted that the actions of the rogue bureaucrats who violated Tai Ji Men’s human rights did not bring any benefit to the government or the citizens of Taiwan. On the contrary, they greatly damaged the international image of Taiwan, as not only freedom of religion but also freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience were repeatedly violated in the Tai Ji Men case.
Thierry Valle of CAP-LC presented the written statement that his NGO submitted to the 47th Session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, which was published on June 21, 2021. The statement denounced the use in various countries of taxes as a tool to discriminate against religious and spiritual minorities. While in several French cases the European Court of Human Rights solved the problem, Valle said, the Tai Ji Men case is currently the most alarming case in the world of persecution of a spiritual minority through unjust and illegal tax bills, and is still unresolved.
Kenneth Jacobsen, a professor of law at Philadelphia’s Temple University who has studied in depth the Tai Ji Men case, observed that those not familiar with the events may ask what a tax issue has to do with an international day established for the victims of religion- or belief-based violence. Isn’t the Tai Ji Men case only about taxes and money? The answer to this question, Jacobsen said, is a “resounding no.” As a legal scholar, he added, when he characterizes what was done to Tai Ji Men as “religious persecution” he uses this expression in a very technical sense. Religious persecution is “unspeakable violence,” Jacobsen said, and it was inflicted on Tai Ji Men and Dr. Hong “deliberately and intentionally.”
Konrad Swenninger, founder of the NGO Soteria International, stated that freedom of religion or belief derives from human nature and dignity and is not something kings or governments may give or deny based on their ideological preferences or political interests. Unfortunately, he said, this is not always understood, including in democratic countries.
Swenninger then introduced several witnesses, starting with Huang Chun-Chieh, professor at the Department of Financial and Economic Law at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. He discussed the case of conscientious objection by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taiwan, which was not recognized as a right during the Martial Law period, while in other countries it was considered part of their religious liberty. After the Martial Law period ended, Huang said, religious liberty was theoretically affirmed, but the Tai Ji Men case proves it is not so in practice, as a spiritual movement that is a “national pride” for Taiwan continues to be discriminated.
Former Taiwanese legislator Kang Shi-Ru, reported how, as a convener of the Finance Committee in the Legislative Yuan (i.e., Taiwan’s Parliament), he carefully studied the Tai Ji Men case, and concluded that “unbelievable” violations of law had been committed by rogue bureaucrats who had hijacked the government. Kang added that the Control Yuan and Legislative Yuan, which are now emphasizing human rights, are not credible if they do not act decisively to solve the Tai Ji Men case.
Phyllis Huang, a dizi and president of the grantmaking charity Paramitas Foundation in Saratoga, California, presented her point of view as a certified public accountant with more than 30 years of experience in the United States. While all agree that the persecution of Tai Ji Men is a freedom of religion or belief case, it is also an egregious violation of taxpayers’ rights. In the U.S., Huang said, the administration adopted in 2014 a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. If a similar Bill of Rights existed in Taiwan, she concluded, it would be easy to show that the National Taxation Bureau has violated all its key provisions in the Tai Ji Men case.
Tsai Li-Hsueh, a dizi and former duty manager at Royal Delft in the Netherlands, talked about the experience of Dutch human rights and rule of law education, which starts with very young children in the schools. Today in Taiwan there is a National Human Rights Commission and politicians talk a lot about human rights education, she said, but the Tai Ji Men case, against which she went to Taiwan to protest, proves that so far this failed to achieve the desired results.
Swenninger then introduced a shocking and disturbing video, in which the late tax collector Shi Yue-Sheng told a journalist that Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, the instigator of the case against Tai Ji Men, pressured him to testify that he had found evidence of tax evasion, while he, Shi, knew and told him that there were no tax violations at all. Shi confessed that Prosecutor Hou pressured him to falsely testify that he had found evidence of tax evasion. Shi said that “When people are taxed, evidence should be provided accordingly,” and he insisted that the Tai Ji Men case should wait for evidence before the tax bill was issued. Shi even asked, “Where did this money come from?” However, the answer was unclear, so he pronounced “This can’t count.” However, Prosecutor Hou was insistent, and Shi was told that it didn’t matter what he said, Prosecutor Hou would just claim that Shi made the determination that Tai Ji Men was evading taxes. Shi confessed that, under pressure of a city field office of the Investigation Bureau, he begrudgingly made the claim of tax evasion by Tai Ji Men, even though he knew it was untrue.
Brenda Chen, a graphic designer living in the U.S., shared the story of how she left Taiwan partly to pursue the “American dream” but mostly to escape the nightmare created for her by Prosecutor Hou when he arrested her father together with Dr. Hong, his wife, and another dizi in 1996. Because of Hou’s slander, her father, who died seven years ago, lost his job and his reputation. The bank called in the family’s loan, and even their relatives started avoiding them. When the Supreme Court declared her father and his co-defendants innocent of all charges, it was too late.
Another dizi living in the U.S., Alan Shih, mentioned a sad part of the persecution of Tai Ji Men, how families were broken. While his parents, who are now in their eighties, are still protesting in the streets of Taiwan calling for justice for Tai Ji Men, his aunt left the movement and stopped taking calls from his mother because of pressure from her husband, who was influenced by Prosecutor Hou’s slander campaign. Beyond the legal aspects, untold suffering is very much part of the Tai Ji Men case, Shih said.
In concluding the second webinar, which like the first one also featured in the end musical videos about the Tai Ji Men case, Massimo Introvigne noted the significance of tax bureaucrat’s Shi Yue-Sheng posthumous testimony, which proves once and for all that what happened was not a mistake but the result of a conspiracy. It would be incredible if this would be regarded as not enough to rectify the Tai Ji Men case, Introvigne said.