A conference preceded the celebration of the 80th birthday of Tai Ji Men Shifu (Grand Master) Dr. Hong Tao-Tze and offered new insights.
by Massimo Introvigne
On July 28, 2023, the National 228 Memorial Museum and the Taiwan Association for Financial Criminal Law Study organized a conference on the theme “A History of Human Rights, Trends in Authoritarian Justice, and Authoritarian Persecution.” The venue was the National 228 Memorial Museum, and both the location and the date were highly significant.
The museum takes its name from the 228 (February 28) 1947 massacre, when protesters against the Kuomintang government became victims of a bloody repression. Historians still discuss the exact number of the victims, and most agree they were in excess of 20,000.
The date of July 28 was on the eve of the celebrations for the 80th birthday of Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the Shifu (Grand Master) of the spiritual movement Tai Ji Men. The celebrations attracted to Taipei his dizi (disciples), friends, and scholars from all over the world. (I attended the celebration but due to other commitments participated in the conference only through a video).
At the center of the conference were two themes, transitional justice and the Tai Ji Men case. Transitional justice is defined by United Nations documents as the measures a new democratic government succeeding an authoritarian or post-authoritarian one should take to rectify the human rights violations of the previous regime—by punishing the perpetrators, indemnifying the victims, preventing further abuse, and re-establishing the historical truth about what happened.
Transitional justice is an important theme in Taiwan where, as the 228 massacre evidenced, horrific crimes were perpetrated by the authoritarian regime during the period of the “White Terror” and the Martial Law, which ended in 1987. After the end of the Martial Law, a post-authoritarian period followed, where democratic institutions were slowly introduced but human rights violations continued. While Taiwanese law promotes transitional justice with respect to abuses committed until 1992, when the first full free political elections were held, in fact human rights abuses continued even after that year.
In 1996, a politically motivated crackdown targeted several religious and spiritual movements accused of not having supported the Kuomintang candidate in the first democratic presidential elections, which took place in that year. Tai Ji Men was among the victims of the repression, which demonstrated that fundamental rights were still being violated as late as 1996. Although Tai Ji Men defendants were eventually found innocent of all charges, including tax evasion, in 2007, tax harassment through fabricated bills and their enforcement has continued to this very day.
Gross human rights violations are rarely perpetrated by one single individual. The 1996 crackdown was part of a repressive political design decided by the government of that time. However, Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, nicknamed the “Rambo prosecutor,” who executed the design with great media publicity and created the Tai Ji Men case, certainly added a personal twist and tried to promote his own fame and career.
Taiwanese scholars Chen Tze-Lung, chairperson of the Taiwan Association for Financial Criminal Law Study, Tseng Chien-Yuan, associate professor at the College of Hakka Studies of National Central University, and Wei Suz-Tsung, assistant professor at Fu Jen Catholic University, returned to the problems of transitional justice in Taiwan, the limits of the government’s programs promoting it, the genocidal character of the 228 incident, the systemic problems of Taiwan’s tax system, and the negative role of Prosecutor Hou’s antics and appetite for media publicity in the Tai Ji Men and other cases.
One such incidents was the 1996 Zhou Renshen gambling and video game fraud incident, the largest police corruption case in Taiwan’s legal history. The investigation was handed heavily by Prosecutor Hou in his trademark aggressive style, with the systematic leaking of negative information against individual police officers to the media. Four police officers committed suicide respectively on May 19, May 26, June 4, and July 16. Certainly police corruption is a serious crime and needs to be seriously investigated, but the public opinion asked itself whether Prosecutor Hou’s heavy-handed tactics, which led to an epidemic of suicides, were really needed to ascertain the truth.
As mentioned earlier, I presented my comments through a video. I noted that although the name “transitional justice” is comparatively recent, humanity always considered how justice should be restored and perpetrators of crimes should be punished after periods of social chaos and evil government. I mentioned two historical figures from different times, the ancient Chinese Emperor Wen of Han, who reigned in the second century BCE, and Italian 18th-century legal scholar Cesare Beccaria. Both insisted on the distinction between justice and vengeance. Also in the case of a previous evil government, to restore social harmony justice rather than vengeance should be sought, and this is the true spirit of modern transitional justice as well. It corresponds to the teachings of Dr. Hong about a conscience-based justice and may also be a key to implement real transitional justice in Taiwan and solve the Tai Ji Men case.
Thierry Valle, the president of the United Nations ECOSOC-accredited NGO Coordination des associations et des particuliers pour la liberté de conscience, observed that transitional justice is not just an abstract concept. It should be implemented by taking into account the circumstances and history of each country. In Taiwan, Valle said, it is essential that the victims and survivors participate in the process leading to laws and administrative action about transitional justice. Independent bodies such as the Control Yuan in Taiwan also have an essential role. A test of whether transitional justice is taken seriously, Valle added, is whether those who abused human rights are sanctioned. Unfortunately in Taiwan Prosecutor Hou has not been sanctioned. It has rather been promoted and it seems he is even considered for further promotion, something that reveals fatal flaws in the transitional justice system and process.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, revisited the history of the modern concept of transitional justice, emphasizing the role of the special UN tribunals created to prosecute those responsible of atrocities in certain countries, and of the International Criminal Court. He speculated on how transitional justice will play a crucial role after the end of the war in Ukraine, which we all hope will happen soon. It should be followed by the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes and the indemnification of the victims. This international history of how transitional justice is handled may also offer lessons for Taiwan, Fautré concluded.
Hans Noot, president of the Dutch Gerard Noodt Foundation for Freedom of Religion or Belief, noted that authoritarian abuse can happen in all countries, including these whose governments are democratic. Transitional justice, he said, is doomed to fail if we expect from it a perfect solution to all problems. Noot said that he learned from Bonner Ritchie, a scholar who trained the Palestinian negotiators for the Middle East peace talks of the late 1970s, that the idea of finding a full solution for conflicts is unrealistic. However, they can be managed and controlled, eventually reaching pragmatic solutions acceptable to all parties. Perhaps, he concluded, this is the method to be applied in Taiwan and to the Tai Ji Men case too.
Eric Roux, chairperson of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom, reported about his trips to Africa and mentioned the example of Rwanda, where horrific atrocities were committed, yet the new authorities pursued a path of reconciliation rather than revenge. This does not mean that the same formulas may be used in Taiwan, Roux said, but a key principle valid everywhere is that, while totalitarian regimes systematically lie, democracies should tell the truth and admit their past wrongdoings. While Taiwan has achieved remarkable results in distancing itself from the horrors of the White Terror and building a vibrant democracy, Roux concluded, its approach to transitional justice should clearly be amended to cover human rights violations that happened after 1992, as the Tai Ji Men case demonstrates.
Davide Suleyman Amore, an Italian historian of religions, a member of the Italian Association of History of Religions (SISR), and the secretary of “As-Salàm” Islamic Cultural Association, which manages a mosque where he sometimes serves as imam, observed that the expression “transitional justice” as such is not part of the common Islamic language. However, Islamic jurisprudence provides for the restoration of human rights violated by a past unjust regime by proclaiming the truth about what happened, punishing the perpetrators, indemnifying and rehabilitating the victims, and promoting a spirit of nations, reconciliation. He offered examples from Rwanda and Sierra Leone where Muslims, together with others, tried to implement these principles, which he suggested may be valid also for the case of Taiwan.
Reverend Agorom Dike, founder and president of the Caribbean and African Faith Based Leadership Conference, where he works as liaison to the White House faith-based cabinet offices, underlined the role of the United States in promoting human rights and religious liberty internationally. Evil and persecution, however, continue in many parts of the world, and because of its inherent limitations the United Nations has not achieved much in its attempt to stop them. Dike also introduced the concepts of compensative justice (correcting past injustices) and charismatic distributive justice (i.e., a process of sharing love and respect for others) as both complementary and supportive of transitional justice. With these principles and spirit, he concluded, injustice can be contained and rectified in Taiwan and throughout the world.
The Tai Ji Men case took a turn for the worst in 2020. After Tai Ji Men had been recognized innocent of all charges, including tax evasion, by a Supreme Court decision of 2007, the National Taxation Bureau continued for years to maintain its ill-founded tax bills but finally agreed to rectify all of them to zero—except one, the bill for the year 1992. It claimed that for the 1992 bill a final decision against Tai Ji Men had been rendered in 2006, before the Supreme Court decision of 2007, and was no longer subject to appeal or revision. This violated the legal principle that even a “final” decision may always be revised when new facts (in this case, the Supreme Court decision of 2007) prove it was obviously unjust. The authorities ignored this principle and in 2020 seized, unsuccessfully auctioned off, and confiscated land in Miaoli that Tai Ji Men regards as sacred and where they intended to build a self-cultivation center and educational institutions.
Participants in the conference (including the undersigned) on July 30 visited the Miaoli land and the Miaoli Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy, the largest in Taiwan and the one where the largest dragons used in Tai Ji Men performances, whose construction and use has a specific spiritual meaning, are built and stored.
The direct experience of what the Miaoli land means for Tai Ji Men offered to the scholars a new grasp on the Tai Ji Men case—and reinforced their determination to advocate for its fair and prompt solution, which will also be part of a serious and much needed implementation of transitional justice in Taiwan.