How a delegation of Western scholars and observers, led by “Bitter Winter,” CESNUR and HRWF, practiced its own brand of citizen diplomacy in Taiwan.
by Marco Respinti*
*A paper presented at the webinar “International Cooperation for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on April 24, 2023, International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy.
The Republic of China (ROC), commonly called Taiwan, has a formidable institution. It is called the Control Yuan, and helps answering the question “Who controls the controllers?” Of course, this question makes sense only within a democratic regime, and its answer contributes to measuring how democratic a society is. The ROC’s Control Yuan is a case in point. It has the power to censor and impeach government officials who may have committed irregularities and crimes in public affairs.
It is precisely in this perspective that on August 1, 2020, the Control Yuan established The National Human Rights Commission of Taiwan (NHRC), under the leadership of its president. Setting both a moral and a political precedent and example, the NHRC is based on a clear vision: public officials’ wrongdoings are violations of the human rights of citizens. The NHRC’s mission to prevent abuses, correct them, and suggest the punishment of perpetrators is then a fundamental act of justice and transparency. It serves as yet another distinctive feature to set ROC as a bastion of democracy in the world, especially in a geographical area of the globe where democracy is rare. Of course, however, even the best democracies commit mistakes.
On the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy, I would like to focus on a recent important event that happened in the Control Yuan, in Taipei, where the government of ROC resides, as an example of citizen diplomacy, or how private citizens and their organization can contribute to achieve important international goals, in this case in the field of religious liberty.
On April 11, 2023, Chen Chu, President of the Control Yuan, received a delegation of scholars and observers that “Bitter Winter,” its parent organization Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) and Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) brought to the country for the 2023 edition of their International Forum on Freedom of Religion or Belief, from April 5 to 11. It was the concluding event of a one-week long set of activities in Taiwan, locally made possible by Taiwan Human Rights Think Tank, the New School for Democracy, and Citizen Congress Watch, chaired by Professor Tseng Chien-Yuan.
The delegation included representatives from CESNUR and Bitter Winter (Massimo Introvigne, founder and managing director of CESNUR and Editor-in-Chief of “Bitter Winter,” and myself), Human Rights Without Frontiers (Willy Fautré, co-founder and director), the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (Rosita Šorytė), the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom (Eric Roux), the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (Peter Zoehrer), the Coordination des associations et des particuliers pour la liberté de conscience (Thierry Valle and Christine Mirre), Soteria International (Camelia Marin), the Fundación para la mejora de la vida, la cultura y la sociedad (Iván Arjona Pelado), the Italian Islamic association As-Salàm (Davide Suleyman Amore), and American scholar Donald Westbrook, from San José State University and the University of Texas at Austin.
The conducting rationale of the delegation’s visit was the observation of Taiwan both in absolute terms and in comparison with other countries of Far-East Asia and the Indo-Pacific area, especially the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The latter, unlike Taiwan, is home to daily blatant discriminations, harassments, persecutions, illegal detentions, infringement of the rule of law, violence, slave labor, deportations, tortures, and extra-judicial killings, as well as threats to exiles and neighboring nations.
The Western delegation made in fact no mystery to be a loyal friend and a great supporter of the ROC: of course, not in political terms, because none of the scholars and observers in the group deals directly with politics, but for its defense of religious liberty and human rights. They came as friends—they insisted—and observed Taiwan’s situation and problems as friends. Persuaded that no country is perfect, they detected problems even in the ROC. Conscious that it would be arrogant for a delegation of simple observers coming from foreign countries to dictate solutions to the ROC, they nonetheless urged the ROC to find its own way to finally settle still open problems, to avoid both their malicious exploitation by its enemies, and to secure its democratic position as a role model.
For this reason, the response publicly given by the Control Yuan to the friendly exhortation of the delegation was invaluable. President Chen underlined that all misdeeds by ROC’s public officials as to human rights should be redressed as soon as possible and in the most satisfactory way, singling out the case of Tai Ji Men. The latter is a menpai (similar to a school) of martial arts, Qigong, and self-cultivation that for almost 27 years has been suffering for the consequences of false accusations of tax evasion, which were repeatedly declared unfounded by all levels of the Taiwanese justice.
Chen’s commitment was very appropriate, since experts and academics are increasingly discussing the case of Tai Ji Men every time religious liberty is on the table at the international level. Underlining that Taiwan abides by the rule of law, the President of the Control Yuan said that a solution should be found “at the middle way,” to both bring compensation to Tai Ji Men Shifu, or Grand Master, and dizi, or disciples, and allow the Taiwanese government to stick to the separation of powers and the law of the land. This may mean that both Shifu and dizi should obtain substantial indemnification, while they will perhaps be asked to renounce to aspects of the confrontation Chen views as non-essential.
Indeed, President Chen accurately avoided to call her “middle way” solution a compromise, and this is in itself good news. The expression “middle way” evokes a reasonable and transparent agreement among people trusting each other. Her words even indirectly echoed the principle of the “golden mean,” or the desirable balance between two extremes, which was held dear by ancient Greek philosophers. It is also ideally connected to the “golden rule,” or treating others as one wants to be treated, that most, if not all, spiritual and philosophical ways preach and try to observe, both East and West.
In this, she was anticipated by President Yu Shyi-Kun, Speaker of the Legislative Yuan, that the delegation met on April 6 for another important event. In fact, Speaker Yu pointed out that ROC ranks no. 2 in Asia and no. 18 in the world as to the respect of human rights, according to Freedom House. It means that Taiwan needs to build on this important record to soon correct all remaining errors and redress all remaining injustices. The Control Yuan has work to do in face of the rogue and corrupt bureaucrats that denied Tai Ji Men’s Shifu and dizi their right to religious liberty for more than a quarter of a century. The Legislative Yuan has work to do too, since the Tai Ji Men case, already settled by all level of Taiwanese justice, is awaiting a final political solution, and perhaps calls for some laws to be amended.
As scholars and human rights activists, we will continue to friendly and constantly observe the situation in Taiwan. We believe that citizens’ diplomacy can indeed achieve results in the Tai Ji Men case.