On United Nations Day, a webinar focused on transitional justice, freedom of religion or belief, and how justice can be restored for Tai Ji Men.
by Alessandro Amicarelli
On October 24, 2021, CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, and Human Rights Without Frontiers, organized one of their bi-monthly webinars around the Tai Ji Men case. Normally, they are connected with international days of observance, and October 24 was United Nations Day. The theme was “The United Nations, FORB [Freedom of Religion or Belief], and the Tai Ji Men Case.”
I introduced the webinar, noting how the United Nations values of liberty, justice, and freedom of belief have been consistently violated in the Tai Ji Men case. I also presented two videos, one with the message of the U.N. General Secretary António Guterres for United Nations Day, and one about police violence against peaceful protesters of Tax and Legal Reform League, which happened on September 19, 2020 (the so-called Zhubei 919 incident), whose second part was later introduced by Marco Respinti. It was a detailed, moving, and impressive video, and the scholars attending the webinar commented that such incidents indicate that authoritarian attitudes have not disappeared in Taiwan, which is another problem to be solved through adequate reform.
Thierry Valle, director of Coordination des associations et des particuliers pour la liberté de conscience (CAP-LC), celebrated the fifth anniversary of when his NGO was accredited with the ECOSOC at the United Nations. He explained how CAP-LC has cooperated with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of the United Nations and with the Human Rights Council (HRC). Recently, CAP-LC brought twice the Tai Ji Men case to the attention of the HRC, firstly denouncing the misuse of taxes to violate FORB, and secondly protesting the confiscation of sacred land intended for a Tai Ji Men self-cultivation center.
Francesco Curto, a civil lawyer in Torino, Italy, and the co-founder of the committee Fedinsieme (“Faiths Together”), offered the point of view of a European attorney on the Tai Ji Men case. He also shared his memory of meeting Dr. Hong in 2019 in Torino. He said that there are two internationally recognized principles all legal and administrative systems should respect, equality and consistency. In the Tai Ji Men case, the principle of equality was violated because in all years how the dizi (disciples) expressed their gratitude to their shifu (master) through their gifts was the same, yet the year 1992 (for which the National Taxation Bureau [NTB] maintained its bill) was treated differently from the other years. The principle of consistency was also violated by the NTB because its decisions and actions were not consistent with the one rendered by the Supreme Court of Taiwan, which had clearly stated that Tai Ji Men had never been guilty of tax evasion.
Massimo Introvigne, managing director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, summarized the main documents and activities of the United Nations on behalf of transitional justice. While originally, after the transition from an authoritarian to a democratic regime, all the attention was focused on punishing the individuals guilty of serious violations of human rights, in 2004 a landmark report of the then General Secretary Kofi Annan definitively established that transitional justice has four dimensions: investigating the abuses and telling the truth to the country; indemnifying the victims; punishing the perpetrators; and making sure that the abuse, which can unfortunately occur also in a democratic setting, will not be repeated again. These four dimensions, Introvigne said, should also guide how Taiwan should guarantee transitional justice to Tai Ji Men.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, discussed the recent case of the Fung Loy Kok Institute of Taoism, which was declared tax-exempt by the High Court of Quebec, District of Montreal, in Canada. Although Canada’s law is different from Taiwan’s, it is interesting for the Tai Ji Men case that the Fung Loy Kok Institute, which is rooted in Taoism, offered training in Tai Chi to Canadian disciples without asking them to convert to Taoism. Nonetheless, the Fung Loy Kok Institute was recognized as a “religious institution,” which is the label applied in Canada to both religious and spiritual organizations and is crucial for tax exemption. Fautré also noted that, unlike in the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan, the opinion of specialized scholars was sought and followed by the Canadian judges, who in the end also ordered the reimbursement to the Fung Loy Kok Institute of taxes illegally levied by the local tax office.
Marco Respinti, an Italian journalist who serves as director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, said that the fact that Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations may not be used as an excuse to violate human rights. While Taiwan rightly asks to be acknowledged for his role in the international democratic community, Respinti said, it should prove the maturity of its democracy by solving the Tai Ji Men case. He then introduced an expert from Taiwan and six dizi from different countries.
The expert was Huang Kun-Kuang, former Senior Auditor of the Taxation Bureau of Kaohsiung. He reported that corruption is now being exposed in the Investigation Bureau in Taiwan, and needs to be exposed in the National Taxation Bureau too. He said that the case of Tai Ji Men was a case of “political purge and religious persecution,” and that Tai Ji Men is not a cram school and has no business income from its activities. However, the prosecutor fabricated evidence to accuse Dr. Hong of failing to report the income of an alleged cram school, and as a result, tax inspectors levied high income tax and fines on him. That an ambitious prosecutor was able to manipulate the tax officers, he said, casts doubts on Taiwan’s democracy, but it is also true that at a certain stage tax bureaucrats started operating themselves illegally, which raises additional doubts on how they were trained and taught the ethics of their job.
Chang Su-Ying, a high school teacher and a Tai Ji Men dizi, told the story of how an incident of bullyism, and the fact that one student refused to tell the truth, poisoned the atmosphere in her school. There are similar or worse incidents in colleges, she said, but even worse is when officials and bureaucrats as it happened in the Tai Ji Men case perpetuate a culture of bullying their own citizens.
Chang Shi-Chang, an engineer working in Japan, reported the dire consequences of the persecution of Tai Ji Men. His mother, who had been a happy woman, started suffering from a depression that led to dementia. He was also embarrassed when he was ridiculed by his colleagues who had read the slanderous media articles against Tai Ji Men. Chang also reported that, after he sent the petition letter about the Tai Ji Men situation with Taiwanese governmental representatives in Japan, the Japanese authorities enquired about his own taxes, but ended up thanking him for his contribution to the Japanese economy, a kind attitude he contrasted with the arrogance of their Taiwan counterparts, experienced not only by Tai Ji Men but by millions of Taiwanese. Chang attributed this to the immoral system of bonuses, calling for its elimination.
Allen Lu, a Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Berkeley, returned to the theme of transitional justice. He recalled being part of a meeting with the former President of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, where he stated that the first steps in transitional justice are indemnifying the victims and reforming the laws. Dr. Hong and his co-defendants in the criminal case in Taiwan were indemnified for their unjust detention, yet the “Wałęsa formula” would require that also the land unjustly confiscated will be returned to Tai Ji Men, and that laws that allowed injustices to occur will be reformed. Although this is difficult when, as in the case of Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Ren and of many tax bureaucrats involved, the perpetrators of past wrongdoings are still part of the state administration, ultimately punishing those who abused human rights is also a necessary part of transitional justice, and one that was not implemented in the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan.
Jenny Hsiung, an educator in the public education system in California, mentioned her experience of seeing students, parents, and members of the school staff falling into depression during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was an experience she knew, as she had suffered herself of postpartum depression. She could also testify how the practice of qigong and self-cultivation as taught by Tai Ji Men is an effective remedy against depression. Hsiung summarized the main facts in the history of the Tai Ji Men case, concurring with the opinion that the system of bonuses stimulates the greed of rogue tax officers and is the root cause of many injustices. Against what Dr. Hong calls “poisons of the heart,” she concluded, the only antidote is conscience. She expressed the hope that state officials may act with conscience as well, and rectify the past injustice vested on Tai Ji Men.
Nicole Chen, a student of economics at Harvard University, reported how she has been and remains very active as a student journalist. She has written hundreds of articles, and is persuaded that the student press plays a crucial role in universities. Whoever works in journalism in the United States, she said, learns by heart the five cornerstones enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: non-establishment of one religion above the others and freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom to peacefully assemble; and freedom to ask the government for the redress of grievances. In fact, in the Tai Ji Men case rogue bureaucrats violated all the five pillars, which are not only American but express universal values. However, Chen said, she was particularly impressed by the fact that the right to ask the government for the redress of grievances was not taken seriously in Taiwan, as the protests by thousands of dizi were ignored.
Stella Lin, deputy accounts manager in a public relation agency, reminisced about her happy years with Tai Ji Men, and how happy she was to join other dizi to work as a volunteer in 2019 at the International Conference of Chief Justices of the World in India. She contrasted this happiness with the sad story of the persecution in Taiwan. What happened to Tai Ji Men, she said, led her to study other tragic cases of taxpayers harassed for years with illegal tax bills. One of them, a businesswoman, did not resist the pressure and tried twice to commit suicide. She now has breast cancer, and the funds she planned to spend for her therapies have been frozen. These cases, Lin said, did not instill in the dizi feelings of anger or hate. They have been taught by Dr. Hong that the way of fighting injustice is to promote conscience.
Stella also mentioned that the former Control Yuan President and former Minister of Finance Wang Chien-Shien, said in the preface of the ROC Centenary, Taxation and Human Rights White Paper, “speaking of tax human rights, thinking about the fact that I not only have worked in Ministry of Finance for years but also has been the minister—there must have been many unjust or inconvenient laws made by me. Even though it was not intentionally caused, the regret of the people in my heart cannot be avoided. Many officials of tax authorities, especially senior officers, are my students or colleagues before. If the tax human rights are still violated today, I should be in great charge of this. I am really a criminal.” Even though this White Paper was published ten years ago, there are still countless tax disaster cases that have not been resolved. It is clear that Taiwan’s tax and legal systems are riddled with loopholes, she said, and people should not become victims of the bureaucratic system.
Michele Amicarelli, a psychologist in London, UK, summarized the main contents of the webinar. Before presenting a Tai Ji Men photo slide show, he concluded by mentioning that, as a psychologist, he has studied the connection between human rights and mental health, and even physical health. As the witnesses confirmed, it is well possible that the abuses vested on Tai Ji Men created problems of depression for some dizi. They were victims of psychological violence—one more reason to call for a swift solution of the long-lasting Tai Ji Men case.