On the United Nations Zero Discrimination Day, scholars and human rights activists discuss the continuing discrimination of Tai Ji Men.
by Daniela Bovolenta
March 1 is the United Nations Zero Discrimination Day, which offered the opportunity for one of the bi-monthly webinars on the Tai Ji Men case organized by CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, and the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers.
The theme was “Tai Ji Men: 25 Years of Discrimination.” It was introduced by Alessandro Amicarelli, president of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), who reminded the audience of both the gross injustice of the Tai Ji Men case and the extraordinary mobilization of scholars and human rights activists from all continents to support Tai Ji Men. Amicarelli said that, if March 1 is the U.N. Zero Discrimination Day, February 28 is the day when Taiwanese remember the 228 Incident of February 28, 1947. Around that date, thousands and perhaps tens of thousands died in the repression of protests against the government. The memory of the 228 Incident, Amicarelli noted, reminds all of us, and the Taiwanese authorities as well, that democracy should never be taken for granted and requires an effort to rectify past injustices, which also applies to the Tai Ji Men case.
Amicarelli presented a video about the events that started in December 1996, inaugurating the Tai Ji Men case, and produced “the coldest winter for Tai Ji Men ‘shifu’ (Grand Master) and ‘dizi’ (disciples),” causing enormous and unnecessary suffering. Amicarelli then introduced three papers by international scholars.
Karolina Maria Hess, assistant professor at the Center for Comparative Studies of Civilizations of Poland’s Jagiellonian University, explained that she took some time off from her work of these days supporting refugees from the war in Ukraine who arrive in her country to participate in the webinar. What is happening in Ukraine, she said, reminded her that Europe has always been full of tensions, including in the field of religion, and she hoped to find a quieter situation when she started studying religion in Taiwan. She reported she had a good impression of Taiwan’s religious liberty, until she started studying the Tai Ji Men case, which seemed to her “absurd.” She discussed various possible explanations on why this happened in Taiwan, which is otherwise proud of its religious liberty, and concluded that systemic problems seem to exist in what she called the dysfunctional “mechanism” of Taiwanese bureaucracy.
PierLuigi Zoccatelli, professor of Sociology of Religions at Pontifical Salesian University in Torino, Italy, analyzed the complicated relationship between discriminations and religions. Religious groups are often accused of discriminating, for example against those who are not members of a certain religion, or against women, or homosexuals. Courts of law in democratic countries, Zoccatelli said, have recognized that it is part of freedom of religion or belief that religions and spiritual groups have a right to self-organize themselves as they deem fit, even if this involves certain discriminations. Conversely, states should treat all religions equally and should not discriminate against one religious or spiritual group and favor others. In the Tai Ji Men case, Zoccatelli said, both principles were violated, as the government did not respect Tai Ji Men’s rights to self-organization and at the same time discriminated them with respect of other groups, which collect gifts in similar ways, yet were not hit by ill-founded tax bills.
Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR, mentioned the “Rome Model” that he helped formulating in 2021, when he was the Representative of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) for combating racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance and discrimination. The Rome Model is a representation of the slippery slope that leads from intolerance to discrimination, and from discrimination to persecution. The model can be perfectly applied, Introvigne said, to the Tai Ji Men case. Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, who started the Tai Ji Men case, promoted intolerance against Tai Ji Men through media slander, which became discrimination when he tried to dissolve Tai Ji Men, unleash the National Taxation Bureau (NTB) against them, and even cut the supply of water and electricity to their academies. He also created persecution, as he arrested the leader of Tai Ji Men, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, his wife, and two dizi, and used violent methods to intimidate the defendants and dizi in general.
Amicarelli then introduced a video where Marco Respinti, an Italian journalist who serves as director-in-charge of “Bitter Winter,” reflected on the word “discrimination.” Originally, he explained, it did not have a negative sense, and simply meant in English being able to understand the differences between situations and act accordingly. The meaning of the words, however, may change in time. “Discrimination” came to mean an unjust marginalization or stigmatization of minorities. In this case, the international community tries, laudably, to eliminate all discriminations. While the word “discrimination” can also be manipulated and abused, Respinti said, Tai Ji Men offers a clear case of a group unjustly and severely discriminated in the strictest sense of the world.
The second part of the webinar was introduced by Camelia Marin, deputy director of the NGO Soteria International. She outlined the United Nations’ work against discrimination, within the context of present tragic international events. She presented videos where Professor Kenneth Jacobsen of Philadelphia’s Temple University School of Law, Massimo Introvigne, Rosita Šorytė, deputy editor of “Bitter Winter,” and Marco Respinti all expressed their support for Tai Ji Men and offered their wishes for the Chinese New Year. Another video presented the traditional Lunar New Year celebrations of Tai Ji Men, in which dizi and guests from some 80 different countries participated throughout the years. Marin then introduced the testimonies of Tai Ji Men dizi from around the world.
Jason Cherng, a small and medium enterprise consultant from Taiwan, mentioned the benefits he derived from the practice of Tai Ji Men as wisdom, well-being, and wealth—especially, spiritual wealth. The symbol of Zero Discrimination Day is a butterfly, which symbolizes transformation, rebirth, beauty, and freedom. Cherng shared a poem showing how these are the very values he learned from Dr. Hong during his thirty years of Tai Ji Men practice. At the same times, they are the values that the rogue bureaucrats who created the Tai Ji Men case systematically denied.
Judy Lo, who works as senior product manager in a Taiwanese electronic company, told her experience as a child in a family of dizi when the Tai Ji Men case started in 1996. She had a very early experience of being discriminated because of the media slander against the movement. Later, she studied psychology, and understood that discrimination is a psychological problem affecting those who are uncomfortable and afraid when they meet people who have different attitudes and ideas. The problem in the Tai Ji Men case, Lo said, is that persons with faulty psychological coping mechanisms were in power as bureaucrats, let their discriminatory and negative attitudes prevail, and persecuted dizi as they regarded them as “different” from themselves. In a psychologically sound Taiwanese society, Lo concluded, the injustices they perpetrated should be rectified.
Lin Hung-Hsien, a public servant in the field of aviation in Taiwan, mentioned the “Swiss Cheese Model” widely used in aviation safety practice. A Swiss cheese has holes, but it stays whole because these holes are not contiguous to each other. If accidentally the holes align, the cheese is cut or collapses. In risk management theory, the holes are failures that are not fatal if they are compensated by a prevalence of normally functioning parts of the system. If several different failures occur simultaneously, however, they align and create an effect leading to fatal incidents. The “Swiss Cheese Model,” Lin said, can also be applied to a political and administrative system, and explains what happened in the Tai Ji Men case. A prosecutor, different NTB offices, the Ministry of Finances, and later the Administrative Enforcement Agency all failed to work honesty and properly, and the sum of their failures caused the system to stop functioning and created a human rights disaster.
Ashley Huang is a college student in Taiwan with a major in Special Education and Bilingual Education. She explained that Special Education is aimed at removing all discriminations and barriers that may affect students with special needs. She shared his experience of traveling with Dr. Hong to one of the International Conferences of Chief Justices of the World held at the City Montessori School in Lucknow, India. The latter is the world’s largest school and is named after Italian pedagogist Maria Montessori, a pioneer in fighting all kind of discriminations in schools. Huang said that his study of discriminations in the educational system put her in a better position to understand the deeply discriminatory nature of the Tai Ji Men case. It also made her passionate in fighting the discriminations against Tai Ji Men.
Bobby Chen, who studies animation in Canada, insisted on the immoral system of tax bonuses, one of the root causes of corruption in Taiwan. In other democratic countries, Chen said, when there is a tax surplus it is given back in different ways to taxpayers, while in Taiwan any possible surplus is in fact used to support bonuses that end up in the bureaucrats’ pockets. The immorality of the bonus system clearly showed itself in the Tai Ji Men case, Chen noted, and also gave an incentive to the National Taxation Bureau and the Administrative Enforcement Agency to spread slander against Tai Ji Men to the media, trying to justify the actions that justified their bonuses.
Two videos featured testimonies by Taiwanese experts. Professor Wei Suz-Tsung, from the Department of Business Administration of Taiwan’s Fu Jen Catholic University, complained that all attempts at tax reform in Taiwan failed. Martial Law and White Terror, he said, are regarded as remnants of the past in Taiwan but still exist in the tax field.
Gau Ding-Yi, human rights observer in Taiwan for the Association of World Citizens, explained that in Taiwan taxpayers who want to file a complaint against a tax bill used to have to pay half of the requested money first. It has now been reduced to one third, but this amount is still very significant and does not change the injustice of the system. Gau mentioned several examples of taxpayers that were ruined by their inability to make the advance payments requested to challenge unjust tax bills. This injustice of the tax system also reflected on the Tai Ji Men case, Gau said, evidencing the need for a serious and deep reform.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, offered the conclusions of the webinar, noting that different speakers looked at discrimination from different points of view but all agreed that the Tai Ji Men case is an egregious example of discrimination that has been continuing for more than 25 years.
The webinar concluded with a video showing performances that celebrated in 2016 the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy. Resisting discrimination, Tai Ji Men continues to offer beauty and a message of love and peace to the world.