CESNUR’s and Human Rights Without Frontiers’ monthly webinar on the questions raised by the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan honored the International Day of Conscience, exploring how conscience can affect the future of a nation and its people.
by Marco Respinti
April 5 is the United Nations designated International Day of Conscience, as Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers reminded the audience gathered on April 6 for the Webinar “Protest, Conscience, and Human Rights: International Perspectives on the Tai Ji Men Case.” The event was part of a cycle of monthly Webinars using the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan to discuss global issues of freedom of religion or belief and tax justice. Mr. Fautré reminded the audience that the United Nations adopted the draft resolution entitled “Promoting the Culture of Peace with Love and Conscience,” submitted by the Kingdom of Bahrain, on July 25, 2019, designating this International Day. He added that the Federation of World Peace and Love (FOWPAL) was instrumental in the creation of this significant day, which, according to FOWPAL, “serves to remind people to engage in self-reflection to improve themselves and their communities, stimulating a crucial point for transforming the world.” Fautré then stated that the appeal to conscience as suggested by the event title indicates that the struggle for human rights is not purely legal or political, but has a transformative and even mystical side.
Two videos were presented. One offered a summary of the Tai Ji Men case, and described how the Taiwanese menpai (similar to a “school”) of martial art and Qigong founded by Dr. Hong Tao-Tze was the victim in 1996 of a politically motivated crackdown on religious and spiritual movements. Although Dr. Hong and others who had been wrongfully arrested and prosecuted by Prosecutor Hou Kuan-jen were found innocent of all charges, including tax evasion, up to the Supreme Court (Criminal Division) in Taiwan, the National Tax Bureau continued to issue tax bills based on the false indictment issued by Hou. Finally, while having corrected the tax to zero for 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1996, the Bureau maintained only one tax bill for the year 1992, despite the underlying facts for the 1992 tax bill being the same as those for the other years, based on the argument that a final decision had been rendered with respect to that year. This did not make sense, as Tai Ji Men’s behavior in 1992 was no different from the other years. Moreover, there was no legal basis for the tax bills issued for any of the years, but tax bureaucrats went on and in 2020 seized, auctioned, and then (since two auctions were unsuccessful) confiscated lands belonging to Dr. Hong and intended for a Tai Ji Men self-cultivation center.
These events generated widespread protests in Taiwan, and another video detailed the “919 incident.” This was the arrest on September 19, 2020, during the protests, of the innocent 60-year-old Ms. Huang, who had raised a sign asking how much Ms. Lee Gui-fen of the Enforcement Agency had cashed as a bonus for the seizure of Dr. Hong’s land. Ms. Lee regarded the sign as defamatory, but she was mistaken according to local legal scholars, and also, as leading Taiwanese human rights experts commented in the video, it was the first time in Taiwan that somebody was arrested in connection with a defamation case.
Fortunately, the Hsinchu District Prosecutors Office found that the content of Ms. Huang’s sign was a matter subject to public judgment, which falls under the constitutional protection of freedom of expression, and issued a decision not to prosecute on January 22, 2021.
PierLuigi Zoccatelli, professor of Sociology of Religion at Pontifical Salesian University in Torino, Italy, mentioned three main features of the Tai Ji Men case, and compared it with the situation in Italy. First, a prosecutor decided to raid Tai Ji Men with the largest media publicity possible, for his own purposes. This is similar to the mediatization and spectacularizing of certain prosecutors’ activities that happened some years ago in Italy. Second, when the criminal prosecution of Tai Ji Men failed, tax claims were maintained. In Italy, Zoccatelli said, discriminating religious minorities through taxes has a bad flavor, because it is reminiscent of the Fascist era, while the democratic Constitution has tried to protect the tax rights of religious and spiritual minorities, and gifts such as those given by Tai Ji Men dizi (disciples) to their shifu (Master) would be generally regarded as not taxable. Third, in Taiwan some tax bureaucrats violated the taxpayers’ rights. Taxpayers often receive questionable tax bills and do not know where to seek assistance as there is no effective remedy. This often happens also in Italy, Zoccatelli noted, but at least in Europe you can always appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which had defended the rights of taxpayers on several occasions.
Eric Roux, chairperson of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom, found four themes in the Tai Ji Men case, which have parallels in European incidents involving religious minorities. First, the case was started and continued by a small group of “obsessed and fanatic people holding power positions.” Second, they targeted Tai Ji Men most probably because of their “fear of losing control of a sector of the population,” which was looking at Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men for inspiration and guidance. Third, the failure of judicial weapons, as Tai Ji Men won all the criminal cases that had been started against it. Fourth, after the fiascos in criminal courts, the misuse of taxes as a tool to continue to unjustly harass Tai Ji Men.
Remembering the importance of protecting religion and spirituality through a “no-fly zone” free from government interference, including undue interference by tax offices, I introduced a roundtable where a scholar and a lawyer in Taiwan as well as Tai Ji Men dizi shared their experiences. Charlotte Lee, a lawyer and human rights observer from the Taiwan chapter of the Association of World Citizens (an NGO with special ECOSOC consultative status), listed five basic human rights the bureaucrats persecuting Tai Ji Men have violated. They include the right to equality and non-discrimination, the rights to freedom of thought and freedom of religion or belief, the right to cultural engagement, the right to a fair trial, and the right to have access to effective remedies when other rights are violated. In fact, Lee said, no master of a martial arts menpai or religious group in Taiwan has been taxed for receiving monetary gift given by disciples or followers to masters in the so-called red envelopes, yet only Tai Ji Men was attacked with such virulence for a tax evasion that never existed.
Dr Tsai Cheng-An, associate professor in the Department of Business Administration at Shih Chien University, argued that martial law was lifted in Taiwan in 1987 but it would be a mistake to divide the history of Taiwan in an authoritarian period until 1987 and a democratic one from 1987 on. In fact, Taiwanese scholars consider the years 1987–2000 as “post-authoritarian,” and it is in this period that the crackdown on Tai Ji Men happened, in 1996. Unfortunately, Tsai said, the government decided that compensations to victims of authoritarianism is only available for events that happened until 1992.
Susan Wang-Selfridge, a musicologist with an academic training and a music teacher, insisted on the role of conscience in the Tai Ji Men case. She pointed out that in the long and difficult process of rectifying the Tai Ji Men case, some enthusiastic legislative representatives suggested that Dr. Hong and the National Tax Bureau settle the case out of court. Dr. Hong turned down this suggestion immediately and firmly stated that his refusal to compromise with the unjust government machinery is to lead by example, allowing Tai Ji Men dizi to learn to distinguish right from wrong.
Chuck Chen, product manager in a technology company, mentioned Dr. Hong’s focus on “inheriting culture,” and Taiwan’s investment of huge sums of money to promote cultural activities. Tai Ji Men, he said, never accepted public funds, yet it managed to spread culture by holding over 3,000 events in more than 100 countries and 300 cities. Chuck was part of this joyful experience of bringing Chinese culture to the world, until he had to devote his time to protest against tax injustice and the illegal auction and seizure of Dr. Hong’s land. “It felt as if my home was robbed overnight, and I could not call police for help because the crime is committed by my country,” he said.
Jacklin Chang, a graduate student in Political Science, spoke of her interest in transitional justice, a form of justice that should heal the wounds of Taiwan’s authoritarian past, and her work as a volunteer for the Tax & Legal Reform League. Although the Tai Ji Men case is a macroscopic example of tax injustice, she says, it is not an isolated incident. There have been other instances of miscarriage of tax justice in Taiwan, and it is significant that 96% of the village chiefs in the island have joined the call for a tax reform rooted in human rights. She called upon Taiwan’s government officials to listen to their conscience and not to be hijacked by a few unlawful officers. She urged them to be brave enough to do whatever is good for the people of Taiwan and save all those who are still suffering.
Massimo Introvigne, the Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, concluded by reflecting on the connection of conscience with the expression “conscientious objection.” This is a right acknowledged by the United Nations and most democratic states (including Taiwan, in 2000) after centuries of efforts mostly carried out by members of religious minorities, first the Mennonites, then the Quakers, and finally the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is intended as the right not to serve in the military for reasons of conscience, but it has also acquired a broader meaning. Resisting in the name of conscience unjust orders and pressures by the governments may also be called a form of “conscientious objection.” This is what Dr. Hong did in front of the National Tax Bureau, and Ms. Huang did in front of the police. Notwithstanding the traditional respect for the authorities in Asian cultures, their conscience told them they should resist. They are not anti-government, but are just doing the right thing. They have repeatedly proved their case to the government through various actions and have never stopped trying to awaken the conscience of the government officials. They hope that the officers’ conscience will awake and that they will face the truth and perform their duties with conscience. We may all be inspired by their example.
A democratic government should not use its power to persecute dissidents, as doing so would start a backslide into totalitarianism. The United Nations was established to advance human rights, democracy, and freedom for all nations. In commemoration of the International Day of Conscience, it is especially meaningful to discuss the Tai Ji Men case. We hope that voices of justice will push governments to implement conscience-driven administration and truly realize human rights protection and justice.