On the day commemorating the assassination of Bishop Romero, experts gathered to discuss transitional justice and the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan.
by Massimo Introvigne
On March 24, 2010, the United Nations instituted the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. The day marked the thirtieth anniversary of the homicide of the Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero (1917–1980), who was assassinated on March 24, 1980. Since 2010, the International Day is celebrated every year.
On March 24, 2021, CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, and Human Rights Without Frontiers organized another one of their monthly webinars reflecting on religious liberty, human rights, and the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan. The latter case serves as the opportunity and the center to discuss every month, moving from it through concentric circles, what are in fact global issues of freedom of religion or belief, democracy, and tax justice.
I introduced the webinar reflecting on the lesson of Archbishop Romero. He taught us that protesting for human rights is always the right thing to do. It does not damage our country but protects it, which should be of comfort to the Tai Ji Men dizi (disciples) protesting in Taiwan.
The webinar planned to address the Tai Ji Men case in comparative perspective. Małgorzata Alicja Biały, a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Religions in the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, discussed how minority religions and forms of spirituality struggle to be recognized in a country where the Catholic Church enjoys a close connection with the political power. She mentioned the case of Adam Darski, “Nergal,” a Heavy Metal musician who has been fined for blasphemy and may even face a prison sentence. Quite apart from Nergal’s ideas, his case has become a cause célèbre about freedom of speech and of artistic expression in Poland.
Lyudmila Filipovich, a senior Ukrainian scholar of religion who is inter alia head of the Department of the history of religion and practical religious studies at the Institute of Philosophy named after G.S. Skovoroda, mentioned the discrimination of new religious movements in Ukraine, often fueled by anti-cult campaigns originating in Russia and promoted by activist Alexander Dvorkin, in terms of allocations of land for building places of worship, building permissions, and treatment by the media. She said that knowledge dispels discrimination, a lesson that would be valid also in Taiwan, and the works of scholars have persuaded most Ukrainians that the anti-cult propaganda against some spiritual movements is based on falsehoods.
After a video showing the important contribution of Tai Ji Men to the dissemination of traditional Chinese culture through cultural events and exhibitions in Taiwan and internationally, Willy Fautré, founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, summed up the injustices perpetrated against Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy and its founder, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze. Dr. Lukas Lien from Osnabrück University, currently in Taiwan, focused on the concept of transitional justice, which requires that when a transition to democracy is completed those responsible for past violations of human rights should be sanctioned. This did not happen in Taiwan with respect to serious crimes against human rights, including the 228 incident of 1947. Even if no blood was shed, Lien said, the Tai Ji Men case can be called the “tax persecution 228,” in the sense that government officials who breached the law and violated human rights were not prosecuted.
Rebecca Wang, a Tai Ji Men dizi who works in a technology company, recalled her experience of participating in international cultural events with Dr. Hong, including some where she had opportunities to interact with high-profile judges from all over the world. She contrasted their commitment to the rule of law with what she called the “bogus case” against Tai Ji Men, and she appealed to Ms. Chen Chu, president of the Control Yuan (the institution controlling and if necessary, impeaching government officials) and chair of Taiwan’s National Human Rights Commission, to restore justice to Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men.
Michael Selfridge, a dizi and international peace activist from California, explained that he loves Taiwan and would like to recommend it as a favorable place to do business to all his American friends. However, he is reluctant to do it because of the vast amount of corruption and the inadequacy of the tax system that emerged in the Tai Ji Men case. Confronted with Xi Jinping’s China, Taiwan needs friends, Selfridge says, but first it should put its own house in order.
Ni Bor-Hwang, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Finance of Taiwan’s China University of Technology, returned on the issue of transitional justice, and compared the Tai Ji Men case with the Bachang River incident of 2000, when four workers died because of delays in the arrival of the rescue teams. In that case, those responsible were punished. On the contrary, those guilty of illegal actions in the Tai Ji Men case have never been punished. Despite being identified by the Control Yuan as responsible for several breaches of the laws, Prosecutor Hou Kuan-jen was not sanctioned, but promoted to deputy director general of Taiwan’s Anti-Corruption Agency. Chang Sheng-ford and Hsu Yu-che who, as directors general of the National Taxation Bureau, had been accused of forging documents and hiding evidence in the Tai Ji Men case, even became Ministers of Finances.
Two young dizi who are successful professionals, Sam R. Kuo and Lynn Lin, told of how Tai Ji Men enabled them to succeed in their jobs, and offered a moving testimony of years spent protesting in the streets. It was a learning process for them, they said. Kuo reported that he understood how the principle of equality is merely theoretical: in practice, officials from the National Tax Bureau acted upon their belief that their opinions and the bonuses they collect from tax bills rightly or wrongly assessed are more important than the lives of the ordinary citizens. Lin recalled how she attended with Dr. Hong two International Conferences of Chief Justices of the World, held in India in 2016 in 2020, and contrasted the ideas about legality she heard promoted there with the behavior of tax authorities in Taiwan, who ignored the agony and protests of the dizi, as well as the opinions of both Taiwanese and international scholars and even the orders of courts of law.
Eileen Barker, widely acknowledged as the most authoritative academic scholar of new religious movements internationally, professor emerita of Sociology at the London School of Economics, offered a response mentioning that she has been following the webinars of the Tai Ji Men case with astonishment and surprise. She has visited Taiwan several times, she says, but she never suspected that there was in the island such an amount of injustice and corruption as the Tai Ji Men case revealed. While anti-cult opposition to new spiritual movements is common in many countries, Barker said, and in others majority religions try to contain the presence of minorities, what happened in the Tai Ji Men case seems unique in a democratic country, and calls for explanations of a situation scholars may not have fully grasped yet.
Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, concluded the webinar with a word of hope. The young dizi who take to the street and protest keep smiling, with the same smiles they display when touring the world with their cultural events. There is a message of sadness for the injustices vested on them and Tai Ji Men. But it is also a message of hope.