A session of the 37th conference of the International Society for the Sociology of Religions was dedicated to FoRB problems in Taiwan in comparative perspective.
by Daniela Bovolenta
The international conference of the ISSR (International Society for the Sociology of Religion) is the largest and oldest event in its field. It is organized every two years, and the 37th conference took place at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan, on 4–7 July 2023.
The conference discussed a variety of subjects, and the relationship between religions and politics was a main theme. Sessions 5.5 addressed “New Religious Movements and Politics in Taiwan.” The session was introduced by Rosita Šorytė, from the European Federation for Freedom on Belief (FOB). She noted that discrimination against certain religious and spiritual minorities is found both in totalitarian and democratic regimes. It is often promoted by similar forces and uses the same models and rhetorics.
Holly Folk, a professor of religious studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, discussed the return of the word “cult.” While academics tend to avoid it because of its lack of clarity and potentially discriminatory content, it is increasingly used in American politics to delegitimize opponents by claiming they are part of a “political cult.” “Cults” or similar labels, and accusations of operating “fraudulent” spiritual movements, Folk said, are also used in several countries to deny freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) to groups that are looked at with suspicion by the powers that be, for whatever reason.
In the second part of her lecture, Folk focused on the rhetorical discourse of Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen when he started both the Tai Ji Men case and a slander campaign against the Shifu (Grand Master), Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, and dizi (disciples) of the movement in 1996. Devious tactics, such as the attempt to cut the supply of water and electricity to Tai Ji Men academies, inducing other bureaucrats to lie, creating a false association of victims, and even ridiculously accusing Dr. Hong of “raising goblins” are all elements signaling serious FoRB and human rights violations, Folk said. However, the strategy was not unique to Taiwan and is similar to methods used elsewhere in the world against minorities labeled as “cults.” Folk suggested that Prosecutor Hou and other corrupt bureaucrats presumably did not operate alone, and concluded that studying what other forces in Taiwan might have conspired against Tai Ji Men should be the subject matter of further studies.
Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who also serves as editor-in-chief of “Bitter Winter,” traced the origin of the Chinese expression “xie jiao”—often translated as “evil cults,” but meaning more literally “heterodox teachings”—to the Tang Taoist courtier Fu Yi, who used it in the 7th century CE to attack Buddhism as a religion he regarded as dangerous for the Chinese Empire and proposed to eradicate.
In subsequent centuries, “xie jiao” was used in China to label and persecute religious movements against which two accusations were made: that they did not support the government and used “black magic” to lure their followers.
While there is a large literature on the use of “xie jiao” in the People’s Republic of China, and the “lists of xie jiao” periodically updated there, Introvigne said, much less known is that Nationalist China and Taiwan during the Martial Law period also continued the Imperial tradition of persecuting religious movements regarded as hostile to the government. After the end of the Martial Law in 1987, FoRB was theoretically proclaimed in Taiwan but in a long post-authoritarian period groups suspected of not supporting the Kuomintang governments were still harassed and discriminated.
Introvigne then focused on the 1996 crackdown against movements that had not supported the Kuomintang candidate in that year’s first direct presidential elections in Taiwan, which also affected Tai Ji Men. He summarized the two aspects of the Tai Ji Men legal case. One was the criminal prosecution, which ended in 2007 when all defendants were declared by the Supreme Court innocent of all charges, including tax evasion. Another included the different tax cases, where administrative authorities and the National Taxation Bureau tried to enforce fabricated tax bills against Tai Ji Men even after the 2007 Supreme Court decision had clearly stated that there was no tax evasion.
Introvigne explained that, while in the end the tax bills for all the other years were rightly corrected to zero, the single bill for the year 1992, for which administrative litigation had concluded in 2006 (i.e. before the 2007 Supreme Court decision in the criminal case), was unfairly regarded as enforceable. This led in 2020 to the seizure, unsuccessful auction, and confiscation of land intended for a self-cultivation center in Miaoli that Tai Ji Men regards as sacred, to widespread protests by dizi in both Taiwan and the United States, and finally to the internationalization of the Tai Ji Men case, with scholars and human rights activists from all over the world calling for a political solution curing the injustice of the past.
Tsai Cheng-An, a professor at Taipei’s Shie Chien University, presented the Tai Ji Men case as a failure of transitional justice to properly operate in Taiwan. According to United Nations definitions, transitional justice is the effort to restore the human rights denied by a previous authoritarian regime after a country transitions to democracy. In Taiwan, Tsai explained, there is a “negotiated transitional justice,” which only covers human rights violations perpetrated until 1992. The 1996 crackdown against minority religious and spiritual movements proves that there were serious human rights violations even after that date.
The second limit of Taiwan’s transition to democracy, according to Tsai, is the continuing presence of a “legal and tax bureaucratic authoritarian regime.” The old ways of privileging the tax administration over the taxpayers still continue. 94% of the administrative cases opposing taxpayers to the tax authorities are won by the latter. Even in the 6% of the cases when taxpayers win, the bills are not directly revoked but sent back to the tax authorities for a revision. The Ministry of Finance has issued 9,500 “interpretation notes” that are regarded as no less authoritative than the laws—even if they sometimes contradict them—, making the position of the taxpayers even more precarious.
The third reason explaining the systemic problems of Taiwan’s tax system and the strangeness of the Tai Ji Men case, Tsai said, is “anti-corruption under authoritarian legacy.” While Taiwan’s authorities routinely promise to fight corruption, relics of the authoritarian past make this difficult. In particular, bonuses are promptly paid to both tax and Enforcement Agency bureaucrats when they manage, rightly or wrongly, to enforce tax bills, which powerfully incentivizes corruption.
The poison of past authoritarianism, Tsai concluded, still infects parts of Taiwan’s administration. The Tai Ji Men case is a mirror of these problems, which are in need of an urgent solution.
Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, professor emerita at University of Bordeaux, in France, responded to the three papers of Folk, Introvigne, and Tsai. She reiterated that religious and spiritual minorities labeled as “cults” or “xie jiao” are discriminated in various democratic countries, with similar tactics. About the Tai Ji Men case, she emphasized the substantial injustice of treating the year 1992 differently from all the other years, once it had been clarified that nothing different happened in 1992 with respect to the way Tai Ji Men dizi gave gifts to their Shifu. Not being a lawyer but a scholar of religion, Rigal-Cellard said, she has problems in understanding why technicalities prevail over substantial justice.
The session concluded with a discussion in which scholars from Taiwan, Europe, the U.S., and Canada participated. All agreed that the Tai Ji Men case is a black spot on the otherwise good international reputation of Taiwan as a democratic country; that words such as “cults” should not be used as they easily become tools for discrimination; and that FoRB problems also exist in democratic countries. It should be remembered, some participants in the discussion emphasized, that totalitarian regimes often torture and execute members of persecuted spiritual minorities while democracies “only” harass and discriminate them. However, a democracy that does not respect FoRB may easily degenerate into totalitarianism.