Every year, Taiwan commemorates the 228 incident, a dark page of its past, and vows to protect democracy. But this should include protecting freedom of religion or belief.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A speech at the Conference for Tax and Legal Reform organized in Taipei on the eve of the 2021 Memorial Day commemorating the 228 incident.
The 228 incident is the name given in Taiwan to events that happened around February 28, 1947, when thousands and perhaps tens of thousands died when popular protests were repressed by the government. It is a positive fact that Taiwan has decided to remember the 228 incident. It is good that Taiwan is not hiding this dark page of its past, and in fact has decided to reflect on it every year. It is an important event, and an equally important opportunity to meditate.
Taiwan is often compared by Western scholars to South Korea. Both countries were born under a cloud. South Korea was born, as its name says, in an oppositional situation to North Korea. And Taiwan, as we all know, was born out of the Chinese civil war. This was one reason why for years these countries were under authoritarian regimes, and their authoritarianism was somewhat tolerated by their Western allies for international reasons.
There was also another, older difficulty for these two countries’ journey to democracy. It was the old theory that democracy is something good for the West, but not good for the East. I still remember the cover of a book I had to study when I was in high school in Italy, a country which was always very much interested in Marxism. The book collected the comments on Asia by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. A main point was that what we call today the Sinosphere, the area of Asia culturally dominated by China, is totally impervious to democracy. Marx and Engels argued that it was not possible, for philosophical and class reasons, to have a democracy there.
Notwithstanding these two clouds, the theoretical cloud and the political cloud, both South Korea and Taiwan journeyed to democracy, which the world sees as a great achievement. And this journey, after decades of authoritarian regimes and martial law, was not achieved through bloody revolution, but by gradual evolution. It is of course a good thing not to have blood in the streets. But when this happens, the transition to democracy always implies some problems. The old bureaucrats who used to work for the authoritarian regimes remain in their places. Even more importantly, old habits, old mentality, and old behaviors remain. We see this today in some Eastern European countries that were once part of the Soviet empire.
One area of problems in new democracies is how to tolerate religious and spiritual minorities there. Even after the end of the respective martial law or authoritarian periods, there were problems in South Korea, and there were problems in Taiwan. It is one of the most difficult exercises for democracy to tolerate those who think differently, think independently from the powers that be, and sometimes behave differently or do not actively support the parties in power.
There were several crackdowns on new religious and spiritual movements in South Korea, and the same happened in Taiwan, including in 1996. There is an obvious difference with totalitarian regimes. In South Korea and Taiwan, the victims of this repression were able to appeal to courts of law. Sometimes, they even won their legal cases, as the success of Tai Ji Men in Taiwan’s criminal courts and administrative courts, and more recent cases in South Korea, demonstrate. Also, those who wanted to complain about the repression of spiritual movements could take to the street and protest, which would be inconceivable in totalitarian regimes. Yet, the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan proves that the ghosts or the shadow of old non-democratic times and practices still hangs on these countries of new or recent democracy.
It is true that Tai Ji Men, a Taiwanese spiritual movement that became a target of the 1996 repression, won several times in the criminal courts and administrative courts. But it is also true that bureaucrats with the National Tax Bureau were left free to continue illegal practices of taxation on Tai Ji Men, against the clear opinions of the highest courts in the country, which eventually led to the equally illegal auction and confiscation of lands belonging to the leader of Tai Ji Men, Dr Hong, and intended for the building site for a place where Tai Ji Men could practice self-cultivation, in 2020.
The lesson to learn, while we commemorate the bloody 228 incident, is that the journey to democracy is bumpy. Democracy is not a medal or a label, which is obtained once and for all. It is something we should struggle for every day. And this is true in every country in the world where non-democratic practices and rogue bureaucrats continue to surface and operate. This is why the resolution of the Tai Ji Men case will be an important test for democracy in Taiwan, and we sincerely hope that the memory of the past will allow Taiwan to move to a more fair and bright democratic future.