An overview of the long-lasting case and some comments based on the author’s peculiar experience as a firefighter.
by Robin Liang*
*A paper presented at the third international ISFORB conference, “Secular States Struggling with Freedom of Religion or Belief,” Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven, Belgium, May 4–5, 2023.
There are 268 mountains higher than 3,000 meters in Taiwan in an area of 36,000 square kilometers. In terms of land area, it is comparable to the Netherlands, which is ranked 137th on the globe. Beautiful mountains can be found in Taiwan. Visitors coming to Taiwan admire the Buddhist and Taoist temples, which offer vibrant historical and cultural atmospheres in addition to the country’s beautiful mountain scenery. The “Dajia Mazu pilgrimage” tradition, which occurs annually in the second and third month of the lunar calendar, was recognized by Discovery Channel as one of the three most beautiful religious celebrations in the world, and is designated by UNESCO as a “World Intangible Living Cultural Heritage.” Numerous visitors come from other countries to partake in this feast for both the body and the soul. Taiwan is in second place, while Singapore comes in first, on the worldwide index measuring religious diversity. The respect and tolerance of the Taiwanese for religious variety have given rise to a spirit of equality, tolerance, and freedom of religion.
The prosperity and advancement of a nation are highly dependent on freedom of religion or belief. It may promote cultural diversity, respect for life, human rights protection, and social harmony. It can also encourage economic growth. However, even a democratic and tolerant nation such as Taiwan has had some restrictions to freedom of religion or belief, which have negatively impacted its society.
According to Article 7 of the Constitution of the Republic of China (Taiwan), all citizens are equal before the law, regardless of their religion. All are entitled to freedom of religion under Article 13. Property rights are protected by Article 15, and Article 23 which affirm both the proportionality and legal reservation principles. In Taiwan, however, while the Constitution proclaims religious freedom, a comprehensive legislation of religion has not yet been completed. Some old laws of nationalist China remained in force in Taiwan. On February 27, 2004, the Constitutional Court rendered Interpretation No. 573, declaring the old Temple Supervision Ordinance unconstitutional. Then the Interior Ministry hastily drafted a “Religious Management Law,” which still included restrictions and was not in harmony with international principles of freedom of religion or belief. It seems that a true culture of religious freedom was missing in Taiwan. A full understanding of religious freedom as a key human right did not begin to emerge until 2017, when different religious organizations protested the “Draft Religious Organizations Law” put forth by the Interior Ministry.
In fact, freedom of religion had been formally proclaimed with the end of the Martial Law in 1987. However, the ruling party, the Kuomintang, intended this freedom as limited to religious organizations that would actively back its government during the protracted post-authoritarian period. Both religious groups that openly criticized the government and those that simply did not actively support it were penalized. In 1996, Taiwan held its first democratic presidential elections. Some religious groups did not support the candidate of the Kuomintang, who was seeking re-election and eventually won.
After the elections, the Kuomintang government launched what it called a “religious anti-crime campaign” against some of the country’s largest religious institutions and spiritual practice groups, including Buddhist movements such as Fo Guang Shan and Zhong Tai Shan, and also extending to Tai Ji Men. They were hit by fabricated charges of fraud and tax evasion. The abbot of Fo Guang Shan was arrested and his temple closed.
The Shifu (Grand Master) of Tai Ji Men, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, was also detained with his wife and two disciples. Tai Ji Men academies and private homes of dizi were raided all over Taiwan and assets frozen. An unprecedented campaign of media slander was launched against Tai Ji Men. Dr. Hong was even ridiculously accused of “raising goblins,” a practice that has nothing to do with Tai Ji Men.
The results of the media campaign were dramatic for the Tai Ji Men dizi. They generated family disagreements, bullying in schools, university campuses, and workplaces, lost career chances, and the difficulty of accessing adequate educational and medical resources. Absurd as it was, the accusation that Tai Ji Men were involved in black magic and “raising goblins” created anxiety and fear in their neighbors, and further bullying and discrimination.
In this tragedy, there was one positive element that proved that Taiwan had taken at least some steps towards becoming a real democracy. The judiciary power found the Tai Ji Men defendants innocent of all charges. This happened both in first degree and on appeal, and Taiwan’s Supreme Court confirmed on July 13, 2007, that Tai Ji Men was not guilty of any crime, including tax evasion. Additionally, in 2009 the state granted all defendants compensation for their past wrongful imprisonment. This means that the nation has acknowledged that the Tai Ji Men case was based on false allegations.
However, while the judiciary system in Taiwan proved that it was advancing on the way to democracy, the same was not true for the tax bureaucracy, the National Taxation Bureau (NTB). Even after the Supreme Court 2007 decision confirming that Tai Ji Men was not guilty of tax evasion, the NTB maintained the tax bills it had issued against Tai Ji Men for the years 1991 to 1996. The issue concerned the content of the so-called “red envelopes,” which in Chinese culture include gifts disciples give to their martial arts, qigong, and spiritual masters on certain occasions. It is generally recognized in Taiwan that these gifts are tax-exempt. However, based on fabricated evidence—before dying, a tax collector even admitted on video that he had been instigated by the prosecutor who initiated the Tai Ji Men case to perjure himself—the NTB claimed that the red envelopes did not include gifts but tuition fees for an alleged cram school, i.e., a school where pupils learn certain disciplines in a short time. The relevant Taiwanese authorities (Ministry of Education) conclusively determined that Tai Ji Men was not a cram school, but the NTB maintained its tax bills, generating a decades long litigation.
To understand it, it should be explained that tax bills for different years within the 1991–1996 period were litigated in separate cases. After a long resistance, finally the NTB had to agree that it should correct to zero the tax bills for the year 1991 and 1993 to 1996. But it maintained the tax bill for the year 1992. What happened was that the litigation on the tax bill for 1992 had concluded in 2006 with a decision that was both unfavorable to Tai Ji Men and technically final. Although final, however, it should have been subjected to revision when in the following year, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that there had been no tax evasion by Tai Ji Men, in any year. Substantive justice should have prevailed on technicalities, as the content of the red envelopes in 1992 was not different from the content in all other years, yet only 1992 was taxed.
However, the NTB stubbornly maintained the 1992 tax bill, and ignored the recommendations of courts of law and politicians. In 2020, the Administrative Enforcement Agency seized, unsuccessfully auctioned, and confiscated against the amount allegedly due for the 1992 tax bill land that Tai Ji Men regards as sacred and intended for building a self-cultivation center. This led to widespread street protests by dizi in Taiwan and the United States, and the internationalization of the Tai Ji Men case, with a growing number of international scholars and human rights activists taking an interest in what they saw as a paradigmatic example of misusing taxes to harass a spiritual movement.
I will conclude with a comment based on my personal experience as a firefighter. I chose to become a firefighter and give back to society what society had given to me by saving people from fires and other disasters as part of the Tai Ji Men principle of “understanding the true meaning of being and recognizing myself, the world, and all beings.” During the ten years I worked as a firefighter in Taiwan, I was able to assist in numerous rescue efforts.
In 2016, the earthquake caused a community building to collapse. The sixteen-story structure was reduced in height to four or five levels. The working environment was extremely unstable due to concerns about aftershocks and structural damage to the building. Without careful examination, rescue operations should not be launched, and large-scale excavation should not be carried out at random, least the structure will fall again and damage the imprisoned persons who still retain some hope for survival. Although we were in a race against time, we could only advance slowly because of the widespread destruction. It was a miracle that some could be saved. This catastrophe claimed the lives of 115 people. I witnessed many victims’ families sobbing and yelling out the names of their loved ones at the disaster scene, and I understood how extremely painful it was.
Because of my personal experience of such pain, my heart shook when I learned that approximately 60,000 people perished in the powerful earthquake that struck Türkiye and Syria on February 6 of this year. My heart was overwhelmed with a shocking sense of helplessness and grief. Religious compassion always offers warm support in these times of dread and worry, when a calamity occurs and the rescuers seem helpless. People should come together because of shared values helping them to deal with disasters, rather than being divided and at odds because of divergent religious beliefs.
During the earthquake, religious organizations helped with emergency rescue and humanitarian aid while also calming the trauma of the victims. This was a powerful reminder of how important it is that governments let religious and spiritual organizations do their work freely and without harassments. I traveled to Türkiye earlier this year as part of a Tai Ji Men delegation trying to bring relief, solace, and hope after the earthquake.
The earthquake was undoubtedly a natural disaster, but if poor construction materials had not been used, and if government officials had not failed to oversee building safety while turning a blind eye to builders’ violations of security laws, the earthquake might not have resulted in such an extensive number of casualties. Therefore, it is not too much to say that the earthquake was both a natural disaster as well as a human-made disaster. Although Türkiye has been charging its citizens an earthquake tax for 24 years, this was not effective in the face of corruption.
Corruption is particularly destructive. The fire department is a government organization in Taiwan. I am aware that in order to motivate staff to put in their best effort, the public service system has also implemented a number of rewards for honors and bonuses. Women and men who display courage are rewarded. During the recent years of the epidemic, I could actually feel the effect of the bonus motivating colleagues to be active in disaster assistance. Many of my coworkers were willing to take the chance of being infected due to the motivation created by the bonus. However, after joining up as a volunteer for law and tax reform, I discovered that there are more negative effects associated with bonuses than positive ones. The Tai Ji Men case has not been solved for so many years, and one of the reasons is that tax bureaucrats wanted to cash their bonuses.
Former judge and chief judge of the Taichung Branch of the High Court of Taiwan, attorney Yuan Congzhen, claimed that the creation of a bonus system by the tax authorities is likely to lead to negative results. The tax authorities continue to use a variety of devious tactics, including export restrictions and asset seizures, to compel taxpayers to pay quickly, so that they can pocket the bonuses. The effects of this system are disastrous.
Huang Kunguang, a retired inspector of the National Taxation Bureau, also revealed in his book that, as he wrote, “it is okay to over-tax, but if officers under-tax, the supervision office immediately investigate!”
Taiwan has demonstrated a high level of commitment to international integrity by passing the United Nations Convention Against Corruption Implementation Act in 2015. However, scholars and human rights activists have denounced the presence of widespread bureaucratic corruption at the heart of the Tai Ji Men case. Fu Jen Catholic University Assistant Professor Wei Chi-Chung stated that the Tai Ji Men case is a typical case of religious freedom persecution, which should not happen in any democratic country. He also questioned the government’s complete lack of prevention and punishment for corruption, concluding it was no wonder that violators were becoming more and more reckless.
Taiwan was a main topic of conversation at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington DC this year. You Xikun, the President of the Legislative Yuan, highlighted that Taiwan is a model of democracy in the Chinese-speaking world and that its democracy, freedom of religion, and other positive features have received high worldwide praise.
However, the Tai Ji Men tragedy in Taiwan, which has continued through 27 years of repression, has aroused global outrage and support at the same IRF Summit for three years in a row. NGO leaders, journalists, academics, and attorneys all reminded Taiwan that it should abide by its own laws and find a solution for the Tai Ji Men case.
I love Taiwan. I wish my nation to respect religious freedom, pay attention to human rights, and discontinue any practices that might encourage corruption. The government should respect everyone’s freedom of religion or belief, and actively maintain social fairness and achieve social stability and harmony.
I hope that everybody is equal, and society has justice; everybody acts with conscience, and the world is peaceful.