25 scholars and human rights activists from all over the world write to Taiwan’s President urging a solution for a case that has lasted for 25 years.
by Alessandro Amicarelli and others
An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 17th, 2021.
H.E. Dr. Tsai Ing-wen
President of the Republic of China
Office of the President
No. 122 Sec.1. Chongqing S. Rd. Zhongzheng District, Taipei City 10048
December 13, 2021
Dear President Tsai,
We are scholars and human rights activists from several countries who are concerned about a case in Taiwan: the Tai Ji Men case, which may involve human rights and religious liberty issues. In recent months, this subject has been followed by the international academic and human rights community with great interest. In November 2020, a side event was organized at the 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief, initiated by the US State of Department, organized by Poland. This year, sessions about the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan have been organized at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC, at the annual conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in New York, at the biennial conference of the East Asian Association for the Scientific Study of Religion in Jeju Island, South Korea, at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in October and at the International Sociological Association – Research Committee on the Sociology of Religion in Vilnius, Lithuania, in November. A press conference has been organized in Washington D.C. on December 7, with representatives of the U.S. administration and Congress among those who attended (https://youtu.be/6rjxZUYEn4c). In addition to taking an academic approach to Tai Ji Men and their case, the sessions also mentioned human rights and freedom of religion concerns.
Tai Ji Men is a Taiwan-based spiritual school teaching qigong, with roots in esoteric Taoism. Its leader, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, is well-known throughout the world for his international humanitarian activities and his promotion of what he refers to as “love, peace, and conscience.” In 1996, Tai Ji Men was among the victims of an ill-fated crackdown on new religious movements, which was started in Taiwan largely for political reasons. The indicted Tai Ji Men leader and his co-defendants were later fully exonerated from all criminal charges. Transitional justice would demand that the injustice vested on Tai Ji Men in 1996 should now be rectified.
As a by-product of the 1996 events, the National Taxation Bureau moved against Tai Ji Men, accusing it of tax evasion and claiming that the gifts that members gave to their spiritual master in the so-called “red envelopes” were in fact taxable tuition fees for a cram school.
Again, the Supreme Court in Taiwan ruled that the content of the red envelopes should be considered as non-taxable gifts and that there was no cram school. The Supreme Administrative Court also ruled that Tai Ji Men is a spiritual group that practices martial arts and qigong, not a cram school. The National Taxation Bureau, after twenty years of court cases, finally agreed to reduce the tax bills it had levied against Tai Ji Men to zero. But it excepted the year 1992, claiming that for that year a definitive decision had been rendered and no further appeal was possible, regardless of the new evidence and facts. The National Taxation Bureau’s position was obviously contrary to justice. If the content of the red envelopes is not taxable for all the other years, it cannot be taxable for 1992 either. However, the National Taxation Bureau remained deaf to appeals by international and Taiwanese scholars and human rights organizations, and even to the voice of Taiwan’s courts, which had conclusively established that these offerings are non-taxable gifts.
This drama, obviously detrimental to the hard-earned fame of Taiwan as a beacon of democracy and human rights in a region plagued by dictatorships, advanced in 2020 towards a sad denouement. The Hsinchu office of the National Enforcement Agency seized and auctioned land belonging to Dr. Hong intended for a Tai Ji Men’s self-cultivation center, then, after two auctions failed, transferred the properties to the government as payment of the tax bill for 1992, which should not have existed in the first place. Adding insult to injury, Tai Ji Men was even asked to pay the expenses of the enforcement, and the illegally collected taxes enabled the bureaucrats involved in the case to be rewarded with bonuses or good performance evaluations.
It may seem that this is a battle about money, but in fact, it is not. Tai Ji Men has spent in legal fees alone, in twenty-five years of struggles, more than they would have paid had they settled with the National Taxation Bureau. It was for reasons of conscience and justice that they refused to settle.. By settling, they would have admitted that they had been guilty of tax evasion, something that is against both their principles and factual truth.
As scholars and human rights experts active in the field of religious liberty, we see, every day, cases of religious persecution where human lives are lost. It may seem that, compared, for example, to what happens daily in Mainland China or North Korea, this might be considered as a minor incident. We regard it as our duty to speak out about it, however, as it has widespread implications, for both Taiwan and the world, with respect to freedom of religion or belief and protection of human rights. Significantly, already in 2005, the Control Yuan had listed the Tai Ji Men case as one of the most important human rights incidents in which it has had to intervene.
Taiwan is at a difficult moment in its history; it needs international friends, and it also benefits from its well-deserved public image of a country where human rights and freedom of belief are respected. Furthermore, your administration has promised to rectify the human rights violations of the past.
The Tai Ji Men case is, in fact, a test for Taiwan’s program of transitional justice. The Tai Ji Men case is a relic of a by-gone era, when religious liberty was still not fully respected in Taiwan. The action against Tai Ji Men, however, raises doubts on whether the problems of the past authoritarian regimes have been fully overcome.
The case has also significant international implications, as there is widespread concern that tax laws may be used to discriminate against religious and spiritual movements that some politicians or bureaucrats, for whatever reason, do not like. The European Court of Human Rights and courts in the U.S. have stated that such uses of the tax system inappropriate and illegal.
After 25 years, frankly it cannot be enough to answer that this matter should be solved at the administrative or judiciary level. This has already been promised before, and has not happened. At this stage only an intervention by the government and the President of Taiwan can rectify the discriminatory actions of the National Taxation Bureau and the National Enforcement Agency. Only they can cancel the unjust tax bill and give back to Tai Ji Men their sacred land. Experience has taught that without this political intervention nothing will happen.
It is no longer only a group of concerned Taiwanese citizens, it is a larger international community of scholars and human right activists that urges you to act decisively and urgently.
Alessandro Amicarelli, attorney, London, United Kingdom
Iván Arjona Pelado, Fundacion para la Mejora de la Vida, la Cultura y la Sociedad, Madrid, Spain
Eileen Barker, London School of Economics (em.)
Winston H. Chen, Paramitas Foundation, Saratoga, California,
Raffaella Di Marzio, Center For Studies on Freedom of Religion Belief and Conscience (LIREC), Rome, Italy
Boris Falikov, State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia
Pier Marco Ferraresi, University of Torino, Italy
Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers, Brussels, Belgium
Massimo Introvigne, Managing Director, CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), Torino, Italy
Kenneth A. Jacobsen, Temple University Law School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Camelia Marin, Soteria International, Copenhagen, Denmark
Rebecca Moore, San Diego State University, San Diego, California (em.)
Hans Noot, Gerard Noodt Foundation, Heesch, The Netherlands
Susan Palmer, Concordia University and McGill University, Montreal, Quebec
Marco Respinti, director-in-charge, Bitter Winter magazine
Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, University of Bordeaux Montaigne, France
James T. Richardson, University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada (em.)
Eric Roux, European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom
Rosita Šorytė, European Federation for Freedom of Belief
Sun Chyng-Feng, NYU School of Professional Studies, New York
Francisco Tenorio, attorney, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rene Wadlow, President of Association of World Citizens, USA
Thierry Valle, Coordination des associations et des particuliers pour la liberté de conscience
Donald A. Westbrook, San José State University, San José, California
Peter Zoehrer, Forum for Religious Freedom Europe, Vienna, Austria