Scholars and human rights activists gathered in person and electronically in Walnut, California, on February 5.
by Daniela Bovolenta
On February 5, 2022, the Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy in Walnut, California, hosted a “hybrid” seminar, with some participants attending in person and some via Zoom, co-organized by CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, and Human Rights Without Frontiers on “The Call to Fraternity and the Tai Ji Men Case.” The seminar was organized after the International Human Fraternity Day, celebrated on February 4.
Felicia Tsou welcomed the participants on behalf of the Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy, and presented two videos with the greetings for the International Human Fraternity Day of U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the shifu (Grand Master) of Tai Ji Men. Guterres mentioned how the respect of freedom of religion or belief is needed to build a fraternal society.
Hong connected the International Human Fraternity Day with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Charter, as well as with the teachings about a selfless love in the great religious and philosophical traditions of humanity, including in Chinese Taoism and Confucianism. He also mentioned that human fraternity requires promotion of freedom of religion or belief, interreligious dialogue, and a firm stand against discrimination and persecution of religions and beliefs.
Pamela Pryor, former Acting Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Organization Affairs, sent a written message of solidarity with Tai Ji Men. The Mayor of Walnut, Eric Chin, welcomed the participants. He thanked the Academy in Walnut for its long service to the city.
Tsou then introduced Massimo Introvigne, managing director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, who offered the opening remarks. He noted that the International Human Fraternity Day is a United Nations Day of Observance introduced recently, as it was first celebrated in 2021. The date comes from a religious event, the subscription on February 4, 2019, of the Abu Dhabi Declaration by Pope Francis and the imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, regarded as the highest authority in Sunni Islam.
The event was followed in 2020 by Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Fratelli tutti (All Brothers). A video by Pope Francis for the International Day of Human Fraternity 2022 was also shown to the seminar’s participants.
Examining these documents, Introvigne noted three themes resonating both with the work of Dr. Hong on behalf of world peace and love through conscience and with the Tai Ji Men case. They are the identification of the loss of conscience as the root cause of the lack of fraternity; the role of religious and spiritual organizations in restoring the primacy of conscience, thus creating fraternity; and corruption, particularly by politicians and public officials, as a main obstacle preventing conscience-based fraternity and peace from affirming themselves.
Dr. Hong’s and Tai Ji Men’s activities, Introvigne said, are one of the best examples of how spiritual movements can indeed contribute to creating fraternity through conscience. Unfortunately, they also had a direct experience of how the corruption of bureaucrats and politicians may create both obstacles to their work on behalf of world fraternity and peace, and persecution, including through an unjust use of taxes.
A video illustrated one of the features of corruption at work in Tai Ji Men case mentioned by Introvigne, i.e., the immoral system of bonuses given to bureaucrats who enforce tax bills in Taiwan, whether these bills are right or wrong. If Taiwan wants to solve its problems of corruption and save its democracy in a difficult international context, Taiwanese expert Alex Liu explained, these bonus should be eliminated.
Former California State Senator Bob Huff emphasized the religious roots of fraternity, and insisted that action should be taken, particularly by politicians, to remove the obstacles that still prevent human rights, harmony and peace, from prevailing in several parts of the world.
Holly Folk, a professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences of Western Washington University, argued that when unjust taxation targets religious and spiritual movements, the greediness of bureaucrats is only part of the story. She characterized the National Taxation Bureau’s claim that the red envelopes given by dizi to their Shifu as taxable tuition fees rather than gifts as a “misinterpretation” so evident and monumental that it is difficult for foreigners to understand it.
In fact, as evidenced by the story of the Mandarom in France —one of the cases in which French authorities were later censored by the European Court of Human Rights— and by the case of Tai Ji Men in Taiwan, taxes are often used to harass spiritual movements, disrupt their activities, and prevent them from building their spiritual centers.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, noted that Resolution 35/200, which created the International Day of Human Fraternity, explicitly connected fraternity to freedom of religion or belief, by mentioning Resolution 36/55 of 1981, which called for the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. Fraternity, Fautré said, is also connected to Resolution 53/243 of 1999, the “Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace.”
The latter Declaration, noted Fautré, embodies the values Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men have so effectively promoted throughout the world. Rectifying the injustices vested on them, Fautré concluded, would also be a way for the Taiwan government to acknowledge Dr. Hong’s and Tai Ji Men’s unique contribution to public well-being in Taiwan and internationally.
Marco Respinti, an Italian journalist who serves as director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, mentioned the British character Humpty Dumpty, which was part of British folklore before he was mentioned by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass. In the later book, Humpty Dumpty tells the girl Alice that those who are in power may give to the words the meaning they please. Like Humpty Dumpty, modern totalitarian ideologies give to words like “fraternity” or “democracy” the meaning they please.
The same, Respinti said, happened in Taiwan, where some politicians and bureaucrats used expressions like “legality” and “tax justice” with a corrupt meaning, so that noble words became tools for injustice and persecution. Now, Respinti concluded, Tai Ji Men fight for “a just society where Humpty Dumpty is not the king.” Their fight, he said, is the fight of all those who love fraternity and freedom of religion or belief.
Father Joseph Bature Fidelis, director of the Justice, Development and Peace Commission of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, Nigeria, stated that the Tai Ji Men case is evidence that problems of freedom of religion or belief exist in different parts of the world. They require a concerted action where activists from different parts of the world learn to work together as brothers and sisters, and to acknowledge injustices against other groups as if they were vested on themselves.
Religion, he said, can be a force for fraternity; however, in some cases it may be misused for persecuting others, as the Nigerian experience and the action there of terrorist groups that abuse the name of Islam to kill Christians demonstrates. Fidelis called for freedom from discrimination for Tai Ji Men, and solidarity both towards and among all those who suffer because of violations of freedom of religion or belief.
Michael Selfridge, a Tai Ji Men dizi from California, offered a detailed summary of the Tai Ji Men case. He added that the case has been called “a magical mirror that reflects Taiwan’s legal and tax problems.” These problems do not affect Tai Ji Men only and reveal long-standing systemic problems yet to be solved.
Alessandro Amicarelli, president of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), expressed his concern for the fact that, despite the exceptional number of international scholars and organizations that publicly called for a solution, the Tai Ji Men case has still not been solved. Amicarelli then introduced five Tai Ji Men dizi who presented their testimonies.
Su Chiwen, a graphic designer and information artist who has lived in Australia and now in the United States, reported how the practice of qigong helped her overcome her problems of anxiety and claustrophobia. When she shared her enthusiasm with relatives and friends in her native country, Taiwan, she discovered that they associated the name Tai Ji Men with “troubles” reported in the media and an alleged tax evasion.
She became aware of a “dark side of Taiwan,” where injustice was made heavier by media slander and disinformation. She expressed her hope that President Tsai, who promised to hear grievances from the citizens of Taiwan if they will speak loud enough, will now hear the very loud Tai Ji Men protests and solve the 25-year-long case.
Richard Tsai, a graduate student at the University of Washington’s Dental School, stated that as he learned in the American educational system dialogue should produce respect and fraternity. Today in a polarized society this is not always the case, and dialogue degenerates in confrontations where one part refuses to hear the other. Tsai gave the Tai Ji Men case as an example of a situation where there is no genuine dialogue, because the government bureaucrats refuse to seriously listen to the arguments of the dizi and their supporters, resulting in a lack of harmony and fraternity.
Nicole Chen, a student at Harvard University, noted that “fraternity” is not a Western concept only. In China, a parallel concept is “universal love,” which generates social harmony through benevolence and care for others. In the United States, people cherish love and fraternity, yet in practice there are still incidents of hate and racism, sometimes targeting the population of Asian origin.
In Taiwan, too, “universal love” and “mutual benevolence” are proclaimed, but the Tai Ji Men case, and many others, demonstrate that corruptions and abuses damage social harmony. Dizi advocate for legal and tax reform, Chen said, because they know that these reforms are needed to guarantee an effective social harmony and fraternity.
Ann Chen, an attorney in both Taiwan and California, mentioned the 2021 Summit for Democracy in the U.S., to which Taiwan was invited. While Taiwan expressed its commitment to global democracy, Chen noted, it has to put its own house in order first. She reported several cases of legal and tax injustice, in some of which the victims committed suicide. Actually, she said, these are not isolated incidents, and the Tai Ji Men case is just one of many examples evidencing that Taiwan’s democracy needs a deep reform in both its legal system and tax bureaucracy.
Cheng Yawen, a bank executive in the United Kingdom, connected the International Day of Human Fraternity with the International Day of Conscience. The first is celebrated after a United Nations resolution of 2020, the second after one of 2019. Both resolutions were originally introduced by countries with a Muslim majority, the first by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the second by the Kingdom of Bahrein. Both days celebrate the same values of conscience and justice as paths to fraternity, harmony, and love.
Cheng reminded the audience of Dr. Hong’s key role in promoting the International Day of Conscience as a United Nations day of observance. He also expressed the hope that making the Tai Ji Men case known at the United Nations and other international fora may offer help to solve it, after all domestic remedies in Taiwan failed.
Linda Chen, a post-doctoral research associate at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, reported how she joined Tai Ji Men in 1995, not too long before she moved to Canada. She came back to Taiwan in 1996 for the Christmas holidays, just weeks after the Tai Ji Men case had started, wearing her uniform as a dizi and realizing strangers in the streets were looking at her judgmentally because of the media slander against the movement. In the following years, she focused on her academic career in the medical field and, while conscious of the injustice of the Tai Ji Men case, she rarely participated in the protests.
It was COVID-19 that alerted her to the global damage that a few unscrupulous individuals may cause. This led to re-examining the Tai Ji Men case as an incident where a few corrupt officials caused a damage that goes beyond Tai Ji Men, and beyond Taiwan, and to her decision to participate more actively in the protests.
Chen also mentioned her personal interest in the videos of Abhigya Anand, a teenage astrologer from India who has more than one million YouTube subscribers. While she does not agree with Anand on everything, she was impressed by his mention of ancient Indian theories on just taxation and his appeal to conscience, which resonate with what she learned as a dizi and Tai Ji Men’s efforts for tax reform.
Donald Westbrook, a lecturer for the School of Information at San José State University and the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, offered his conclusions to the seminar by noting that there is a connection between the reference to fraternity in United Nations documents and article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of religion or belief. Without this freedom, there can be no fraternity.
Westbrook added his voice to many other scholars and human rights activists who have asked the government of Taiwan to solve the Tai Ji Men case without delay. He said that fraternity is “active rather than passive, pro-active rather than reactive,” and he called for global solidarity with Tai Ji Men and other victims of injustice and discrimination based on their beliefs.
A video, “Youth’s Voice,” presented a plea to President Tsai from young women and men from Taiwan and the United States, in conversation with statements by Taiwanese and international scholars and human rights activists, asking that human rights and religious freedom abuses in Taiwan be put to an end.
Massimo Introvigne concluded the seminar by calling it a significant international event that should be continued by further efforts. The voice of the dizi, the scholars, and the human rights activists will not be silenced until the Tai Ji Men case is brought to a solution. As the closing song, “Love,” reminded the audience, this protest is not about anger but justice, and in fact embodies the true spirit of love, peace, conscience, and fraternity.