Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan tried to restore justice, but failed—why? Experts offered their answers on International Day of Parliamentarianism.
by Marco Respinti
Every month, CESNUR, the parent organization of Bitter Winter, and Human Rights Without Frontiers organize a monthly webinar on the Tai Ji Men case. The dates mostly coincide with the international United Nations days. June 30 was International Day of Parliamentarianism, and the monthly webinar’s theme was “Parliaments, Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Tai Ji Men Case.”
As Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, who chaired the event, and PierLuigi Zoccatelli, professor of Sociology of Religions at Pontifical Salesian University in Torino, Italy, who delivered the first lecture, underlined, parliamentarianism does not simply mean that a country has a Parliament. After all, Parliaments also exist in many non-democratic states, but they are simply decorative and have no real power. The parliamentarianism the United Nations celebrate is about the presence of a democratic checks and balances system, which implies an independent Parliament able to correct the abuses by the executive and legislative powers (and to be corrected by the other powers in turn).
Fautré said that a strong Parliament is the cornerstone of democracy, and the International Day of Parliamentarianism is a day to assess how successful the Parliaments have been in performing their roles. Tai Ji Men, Fautré said, has been in the forefront of teaching Taiwan youth to support democracy and parliamentarianism. They have fought for tax justice against corruption and abuse, based on their own painful experiences, in response to initiatives of the Tax and Law Reform League, which has advanced a number of reasonable proposals. Corruption and unfair treatment of citizens, Fautré concluded, threaten all democracies. Taiwan’s Parliament should seriously consider the proposals by the Tax Reform League to effectively confront this threat.
Zoccatelli noted that Taiwan does have an independent Parliament, the Legislative Yuan, but it was unable to solve the Tai Ji Men case, which—as evidenced by a video featuring American law professor Kenneth Jacobsen speaking before the same Legislative Yuan—involved a sequel of clear abuses and violations of the laws. Why? Zoccatelli suggested three possible explanations: that the Parliament was afraid to clash with Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, who had begun the persecution against Tai Ji Men, or with rogue but powerful tax and enforcement bureaucrats; and that the pre-democratic period of Taiwan perhaps still shapes certain attitudes in democratic Taiwan, as happened in Italy for several decades after the fall of Fascism.
Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist and the editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, discussed the failure of the Legislative Yuan to solve the Tai Ji Men case within the larger framework of the crisis of parliamentarianism. Introvigne noted that scholars have often compared the modern “drama democracy” enacted in the Parliaments to theater. In fact, he said, this comparison is not new, and dates back to Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke at the end of the 18th century. Burke did not intend the comparison as necessarily negative: he distinguished the “bad” theater he saw in the National Assembly of the French Revolution, and the “good” dignified theater of the British Parliament, of which he was a member.
However, Introvigne said, the theatrical side of the Parliaments always raises a doubt on the sincerity of the MPs and their effectiveness. How many of the over 300 MPs who supported Tai Ji Men were sincere and prepared to fight for that good cause to the end is a difficult question to answer, he said: some certainly were, but in the end the Parliament proved less powerful than the openly theatrical Prosecutor Hou, who knew how to behave publicly like an actor and manipulate the media, and the obscure maneuvers of some tax and enforcement bureaucrats.
I had the pleasure to introduce a movie about Dr. Hong’s (Tai Ji Men’s master) property in the Swiss Mountain Villa Community, which was seized during the case and given back to him later in a sad state of disrepair, and two former Taiwanese legislators and four witnesses. I mentioned “Bureaucracy,” a book published in 1944 by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and showing how bureaucrats, if not kept in check, tend to prevaricate over states, Parliaments, and citizens. Even Parliaments, so essential for democracy, may lose their central role and function under the unchecked assault of bureaucrats.
Kang Shi-Ru and Lou Shu-Lei (female) are former Taiwanese legislators. Kang recalled that in 2010 when he was the convener of the Finance Committee in the Legislative Yuan, he organized a public meeting on the Tai Ji Men case, which should have solved the problems, but didn’t. Lou lamented that even MPs were “ignored” by tax bureaucrats, not only in the Tai Ji Men case but also in others where the taxpayers’ rights were violated. “Do you think these legislators [who tried to help Tai Ji Men] have done everything possible?” Lou asked. She said she would not comment on others, but certainly she feels she did her best, and the bureaucrats “simply ignored me.”
Hsia Lung Ogle, a veteran 80-year-old female dizi (disciple) of Tai Ji Men and a retired English teacher living in Florida, offered a testimony on the whole 25 years of struggle, after the case started in 1996 with Prosecutor Hou’s politically motivated crackdown on Dr. Hong and his dizi. She said that taxpayers’ rights are recognized in Taiwan as an indicator of human rights development, yet in practice they are not respected. She called on Taiwan’s President Tsai to personally intervene, and make sure that the country’s credibility in the human rights field is not further jeopardized by its unsatisfactory handling of the Tai Ji Men case.
Tiffany Shao, a senior engineer in a leading semiconductor company in Taiwan, noted that during the pandemic COVID-19 takes much of the media attention, and it is more difficult to interest journalists and the public in human rights issues. There is the risk that unscrupulous governments and bureaucrats may take advantage of the situation to violate the citizens’ human rights and hope few would notice, as it happened with the illegal enforcement carried out in 2020 against Dr. Hong with the auction and seizure of land intended for a Tai Ji Men self-cultivation center.
Pamela Chen graduated in Taiwan in 1995 and one year later, in 1996, the case started. She recalled how the media campaign against Tai Ji Men led many of her friends to shun her. She also felt frustrated when letters to political authorities in Taiwan went unanswered. Pamela then moved to United States, where at least, she said, senators and other American authorities were willing to listen when she proposed to tell them the Tai Ji Men story.
Eileen Ho, a marketing designer in Taiwan, also testified that her protests in favor of Tai Ji Men caused the loss of several friends, who believed the media slander instigated by Prosecutor Hou. She returned to the failure of the Parliament to correct the injustice. It shows, she said, that the system of checks and balances does not effectively work in Taiwan.
Eileen Barker, professor emeritus of Sociology at the London School of Economics and a world-renowned authority on new religious movements, concluded the webinar by noting that the ramification of this case go well beyond Tai Ji Men and Taiwan. Problems of transitional justice, she said, are notoriously intractable even in older democracies than Taiwan. She found “incredible” that more than 300 MPs were not heard in Taiwan, and commented humorously that if he was alive today perhaps Burke would find modern Parliaments less “dignified,” and would refer to Shakespeare mostly for his recurrent character of the fool. Theaters, Barker said, also have a backstage, which is invisible but important, and there you find the bureaucrats, who often resist the governments and the Parliaments, just pretending they are following their indications but in fact sabotaging them. Such bureaucrats have been satirized in comedies in the West, but in Taiwan it seems comedy turns to tragedy as “a few individuals are hijacking the government.”
Barker also said that since she learned of the case she struggled to understand why Tai Ji Men was specifically targeted in Taiwan, while other qigong groups were less persecuted, but now realizes that perhaps she was asking the wrong question. Former legislator Lou, Barker said, showed in the webinar that there is a problem in Taiwan with the National Taxation Bureau (NTB). Rather than Tai Ji Men, NTB is the problem. But, she also noted, there is something unique about Tai Ji Men, that they did not compromised and continued to fight for justice. “Thank you, Tai Ji Men,” she concluded.