International scholars and human right activists examined different features of the case and of Tai Ji Men’s global campaign for peace and conscience.
by Alessandro Amicarelli
CESNUR, Human Rights Without Frontiers, and Action Alliance to Redress 1219 organized on October 13, 2023, at Le Méridien Pasadena Arcadia a seminar on “California for Tai Ji Men: A Forum on Conscience, Justice, and Freedom of Belief.”
Christine Mirre, deputy director of the United Nations ECOSOC-accredited NGO Coordination des associations et des particuliers pour la liberté de conscience (CAP-LC) introduced the seminar. She noted that California has a long tradition of honoring religious pluralism and protecting freedom of religion or belief. The U.S. laws its courts apply are based on five pillars: non-discrimination, freedom of worship, protection of religious institutions, separation of church and state, and protection of land use for religious purposes and zoning regulations that do not discriminate religions. These principles, Mirre said, could also serve as a guide for addressing and solving the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan.
Mirre then presented the Shifu (Grand Master) of Tai Ji Men, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, who thanked the scholars and human right activists for their support. He explained that a return to conscience is the key to successfully protect human rights, as a man of conscience would always have a free soul and understand how to respect and defend freedom. By carrying out a message of peace, love, and conscience, and fighting for justice, Dr. Hong said, “we are not only writing our own history, but also the history of the world.”
Mirre also introduced the speakers of the first session: Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of “Bitter Winter,” Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of the same magazine, and Hans Noot, president of the Dutch Gerard Noodt Foundation for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Introvigne observed that California courts of law played a pivotal national and even international role in affirming principles of freedom of religion or belief. Scholars of new religious movements all know and quote the “Fishman” decision of 1990, which dismissed as pseudo-scientific theories that groups stigmatized as “cults” use “brainwashing” to control their followers. Less well-known but equally important in American legal history, Introvigne said, is the 1931 “Blackburn” decision of the California Supreme Court. The decision stated that money given to The Great Eleven, a small religious movement that announced an imminent end of the world, should be considered as freely given and non-taxable gifts, notwithstanding the admittedly “strange” doctrines of the group.
Certainly, we cannot compare the small and marginal Great Eleven movement with Tai Ji Men and its global outreach, Introvigne concluded. However, courts of law often create legal precedents precisely out of extreme or marginal cases, and the principle that offerings freely given to spiritual masters, irrespective of whether their doctrines are socially accepted or otherwise, are tax-exempt gifts and not the taxable fruits of “religious fraud” still stand in American case law.
Respinti described the role and mission of Dr. Hong as an “ambassador of conscience.” He compared his teachings to those of Western thinkers who have reflected on the notion of conscience. On the one hand, Respinti said, conscience is innate and is present in all women and men. On the other hand, conscience should be awakened and cultivated to avoid the phenomenon of “bad conscience.” Awakening the conscience requires a constant effort of self-cultivation, Respinti concluded, which is at the very center of the experience of Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men.
Noot reviewed the recent history of freedom of religion or belief in California. He noted that California legislators and courts have generally affirmed religious liberty, but not without fights. He mentioned cases where religious devotees won the right to wear religious symbols in public spaces and at work, and display them outside of their homes and places of worship. Noot also discussed controversies about keeping churches and other religious venues open during the COVID-19 pandemic, and same-sex marriage. He concluded that questions of freedom of religion or belief are never simple, but they can be solved if all parties are willing to cooperate and act with integrity and conscience—a lesson Taiwanese authorities may look at to solve the Tai Ji Men case.
Thierry Valle, director of CAP-LC, chaired the second session where five Tai Ji Men dizi (disciples) presented their testimonies. Gau Ding-Yi, an intellectual property consultant, reported how joining Tai Ji Men and practicing qigong helped him and his family to overcome several problems and survive economic crises. He quoted President Roosevelt and his proclamation of the four fundamental freedoms during World War II: freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Gau noted that, starting with the illegal actions of Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, who started the Tai Ji Men case in 1996, these freedoms have been denied to Dr. Hong and his dizi in Taiwan.
Huang Ching-Shiun is a lawyer and former prosecutor. These are two different jobs, she observed, but she learned from Dr. Hong that both lawyers and prosecutors should act with conscience. Those who don’t, Huang said, often turn against freedom of religion or belief, which is always looked at with suspicion by authoritarian politicians and bureaucrats. This happened in Taiwan during the Martial Law period, when several religious movements were persecuted, and even in subsequent years, with the religious crackdown of 1996 that also affected Tai Ji Men. Huang reviewed the numerous violations of law that occurred in the Tai Ji Men case and expressed the hope that international support may help solving it without further delay.
Clyde Chien, the former CFO of an international ICT company, offered an in-depth analysis of two important features of Taiwan tax system. The first is the system of bonuses given to tax bureaucrats who issue and enforce tax bills, some of them of questionable validity, an obvious root cause of corruption. The second is the target system, under which each National Taxation Bureau unit was asked to recover every year a certain amount of money in tax bills and fines.
This was a machine producing “institutional, structural injustice,” Chien said. It was discontinued in 2017, after the Legislative Yuan passed in 2016 the “Taxpayer Rights Protection Act.” However, that such system existed shows the attitude prevailing among tax bureaucrats, and it is when the target model was in force that the ill-founded bills against Tai Ji Men and Dr. Hong were issues, Chien concluded.
Halope Hsu, a supply chain management specialist, reported her long experience as a dizi and singled out the suggestion that we should learn how to smile and be at peace with ourselves and those around us as Dr. Hong’s teaching that most helped her. She noted that according to the World Health Organization ninety percent of the diseases have an emotional component. These teachings helped her remaining quiet, while energetically fighting for justice, when the sacred land of Tai Ji Men in Miaoli was seized, unsuccessfully auctioned off, and confiscated in 2020, an abusive action that greatly angered and saddened her, Hsu said. She quoted Einstein’s saying that “the world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but by those who watch them and do nothing”—a lesson we should always keep in mind when dealing with the Tai Ji Men case.
Allen Yeh, a patent engineer, testified that in his personal case he successfully experienced one of the many benefits of practicing qigong, weight loss. He also gained additional motivations to devote himself to the difficult task of protecting his clients’ patents. He saluted the recent reform of patent law in Taiwan, better protecting the rights of patent applicants from possible mistakes and abuses by bureaucrats. However, he noted that in the even more delicate field of taxes Taiwanese taxpayers remain much less protected and in a position of disadvantage with respect to the National Taxation Bureau and the tax bureaucrats. The Tai Ji Men case, Yeh said, is the most blatant example of this injustice, but is not the only one. Tax reform is an undelayable urgency in Taiwan, he concluded.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, concluded the seminar. He emphasized that conscience is the key to avoid war and the tragic loss of human lives that we witness daily just by looking at the news. Wherever there is a crisis, suffering, injustice, Fautré said, Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men bring a message of peace, love, and conscience. This message also necessarily include human rights and freedom of religion or belief. So often, Fautré said, revolution shocking world culture have been started in California. Dr. Hong and his dizi have now a well-established presence in California, he concluded, and we can only hope that from the events organized there in October 2023 a movement will start that will finally restore justice and freedom for Tai Ji Men.