While certain features of criticism against “cults” are international, others are typical of the Sinosphere and are present in both cases.

by Rosita Šorytė*

*A paper presented at the third international ISFORB conference “Secular States Struggling with Freedom of Religion and Belief,” Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven, May 4–5, 2023.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on May 22nd, 2023.

The author visiting Kyoto in 2018.
The author visiting Kyoto in 2018.

I always considered Taiwan and Japan an integral part of the democratic world, where respect for human rights and the rule of law prevail. I had a chance to visit these beautiful countries several times, and I have noticed how deeply spiritual they are. To me, Taiwan appears as a guardian of authentic Chinese culture and history, which safeguarded it from the dangers of Cultural Revolution in mainland China. Even today, Taiwan remains a proud custodian and an ambassador to the world of genuine Chinese culture and traditions. Japan is also the guardian of a millennia-old, beautiful culture and deep spirituality, as a visit to Kyoto would immediately show even to a casual tourist.

Religious freedom is part and parcel of human rights, and many traditional Chinese religions and traditions can survive from Chinese persecution only because Taiwan is generously giving them this space. To keep Taiwan democratic and open, to keep Taiwan the custodian of Chinese cultural heritage, including its spiritual part, is crucially important to the entire Chinese civilization and to the entire world. Japan is in turn the home of some of the largest religious (as well as “spiritual-but-not-religious”) movements in the world, which have expanded from their Japanese homeland to become truly globalized phenomena, including Zen Buddhism, Reiki, and Soka Gakkai.

During my trips to Taiwan, I had the chance to meet the spiritual group called Tai Ji Men. I have learned how they rely on the most ancient Taoist traditions to build and propose a spirituality that is open to people of all religions. I had a chance to meet more than once Doctor Hong, the founder of Tai Ji Men, and learn about its ambitious projects of peaceful dialogue between different cultures and religions. I was impressed by how Dr Hong has friends and supporters among different people around the world, including at the United Nations. He is clearly an ambassador of Chinese culture and spirituality abroad, trying to promote an interreligious dialogue amongst various groups through what unites us and not through what divides. This is so needed today in our extremely turbulent world.

I have noticed that the members of Tai Ji Men are people who like to think independently. They share a healthy lifestyle for the body, mind, and soul. Abroad, where they also offer artistic performances based on traditional Chinese culture, they are good ambassadors of the values and cultural riches Taiwan stands for, and Taiwan should be grateful for this.

Tai Ji Men cultural performance.
Tai Ji Men cultural performance.

I was very surprised to learn that many years ago, when Taiwan was still struggling to choose the path of freedom and democracy, there were some dark forces who tried, it seems sometimes because of personal interests of some influential people, to destroy and compromise the Tai Ji Men movement by falsely accusing its leader and the group of various crimes. But the fact is that justice prevailed, and all cases were finally solved by declaring the Tai Ji Men defendants innocent or dropped, except one of alleged tax evasion in 1992, which is a compete replica of other cases where the group and its leader were found not to be guilty. The reason for that is, as I understand, the simple legal argument that a decision had become final.

Unfortunately, this biased and unfair decision of the past is still in force, and Taiwanese tax authorities seized Tai Ji Men properties to force them to pay what they believed was due, which greatly damaged the spiritual movement.

I also admire Japan’s principled attitude to various international issues, including the war of aggression waged by Russia against Ukraine. I shared the grief of the Japanese people when, in 2022, they mourned their assassinated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Of course, not all Japanese agreed with Abe’s policies, but his long political career made him a key protagonist of Japanese’s recent history.

The man who assassinated former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe claimed he wanted to punish him for his support to the Unification Church, now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. The killer claimed this church is an evil “cult” and was responsible for the problems of his mother, who went bankrupt in 2002 due to her excessive donations to the church. The anti-cultists managed to create a national media campaign blaming Abe and his party for supporting the Unification Church and the latter for soliciting important donations from its followers. Laws were passed targeting the Unification Church and other “cults,” including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had nothing to do with the assassination of Abe but are always taken as scapegoats in campaigns against minority religions, As for the assassin, media were quite sympathetic to him.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (1954–2022). Credits.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (1954–2022). Credits.

This was, again, very surprising, and not attuned to my own idea of Japan as a democratic and progressive country. How was this possible?

Before I came across the cases of Tai Ji Men and the Unification Church, I had taken an interest on religious persecution in China, and the humanitarian issue of religion-based asylum seekers who escape China and come to the West as refugees. In particular, I met refugees from a Chinese religious movement known as The Church of Almighty God, which together with Falun Gong is currently the most persecuted religion in China and whose refugees have filed more than 5,000 requests for asylum in several democratic countries.

As in the case of Tai Ji Men in Taiwan and the Unification Church in Japan, but on a much larger scale considering the type of regime prevailing in China, The Church of Almighty God has been both persecuted and defamed through fake news and slander. That it was responsible for a homicide in a McDonald’s diner in 2014 in Zhaoyuan, in the Chinese province of Shandong, is still occasionally repeated by Chinese propaganda, but now even Chinese media have acknowledged that the crime was perpetrated by a different religious movement, not connected with The Church of Almighty God.

Trying to help refugees of The Church of Almighty God led me to some research on why they were persecuted in China. Some may argue that the reason is that they regard the Chinese Communist Party as a manifestation of evil, in fact the “Evil Red Dragon” mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Revelation. However, this is a vicious circle. The Church of Almighty God started insisting on the theme of the Red Dragon because and after it was persecuted rather than before.

By researching the issue and reading the works of scholars, I realized that the problems were older and deeper than The Church of Almighty God’s anti-Communist discourse. In fact, the Chinese culture and tradition does not have the idea of a religion independent from politics. Religion is conceived as a tool to create social harmony through teachings and rituals that would make the citizens law-abiding and induce them to support the powers that be. This idea prevailed for centuries through what historians called the “Sinosphere,” i.e., the area where Chinese culture was enormously influential, although local cultures were also relevant, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

This idea of “religion” (a word that did not even exist before these countries came into contact with West) explains why it is so difficult for scholars to agree on a characterization of “Confucianism” in China and “Shintoism” in Japan. Are they religions? Or simply systems where the support the citizens are supposed to give to the State and the governments is sacralized and ritualized? This is mostly a dilemma for Western scholars. For Chinese and Japanese, they are both, and both at the same time.

Confucius Temple, Taipei. Photo by Rosita Šorytė.
Confucius Temple, Taipei. Photo by Rosita Šorytė.

This conception may have served well the Chinese and Japanese empires throughout their long history, but was hardly compatible with Western ideas of religious liberty (ideas that, of course, even in the West emerged only in the last few centuries and through much pain). The Chinese Constitution guarantees religious liberty, but only to “normal” religions, and which religions are “normal” is determined by the Communist Party. In Japan, religious liberty was imposed by the consultants who came with American General Douglas McArthur after the Allied victory in World War II to tell the Japanese how to draft a Constitution and laws making the country a democracy according to the United States model. In Taiwan, religious liberty has been theoretically proclaimed after the end of the Martial Law period in 1987, but the Tai Ji Men case shows how difficult it is to apply it in practice.

The idea that legitimate religions are those that support the state and are controlled by it leaves outside of the field of legitimacy independent groups that do not necessarily oppose the state (although some do) but are not part of the state system and elude control. In China, originally Buddhist was viewed as one such group, although it was later integrated into the state system. In the 7th century CE, the dominant Taoists created a special name to designate the “heterodox teachings” that threatened the state and should be eradicated, “xie jiao” (today, this expression is translated as “evil cults,” but this is clearly anachronistic). In Japan, similar expressions were adopted and used to persecute, inter alia, Christianity.

Throughout the Sinosphere, what I would call to use a general term “bad spiritual groups” where identified since the Middle Ages of having two features. First, they opposed or at least did not explicitly support the government, and escaped its surveillance. Second, they used black magic to entice their followers or “victims.” Note that even Catholics were sometimes accused of practicing black magic in Japan and executed for this as late as in the 19th century. Again since the Middle Ages, this was confirmed by ex-members of the movements who, to avoid the death penalty associated with being active in a “bad group” both in China and Japan, cooperated with the authorities and denounced their former co-religionists. Thus, a third feature of a “bad spiritual group” emerged: it had ex-members who denounced it and confirmed the suspicion of the authorities.

This system never went away. As Chinese scholars have indicated, when the Western anti-cultists told them that “cults” use “brainwashing,” Chinese authorities accepted the idea very easily, because it looked just as a variation of witchcraft and black magic traditionally associated with the “bad groups.” However, they insisted that old-fashioned black magic was also still used by some movements.

This scheme is still at work today, and we can see it both in the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan and in the (former) Unification Church (now called the Family Federation) case in Japan.

First, both Tai Ji Men in Taiwan and the Family Federation in Japan are perceived as outside the state-sanctioned system of religious and spiritual groups the state is familiar with and looks at for support. This may seem contradictory with the fact that in Japan the Family Federation is accused of being too much active in politics, having cooperated with the later Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party and organized significant anti-Communist activities.

An open-door lecture of the International Federation for Victory Over Communism founded by the Unification Church, ca. 1969. Source: tparents.org.
An open-door lecture of the International Federation for Victory Over Communism founded by the Unification Church, ca. 1969. Source: tparents.org.

However, there is no contradiction. Religious outsiders may be politically active, but their activity is still perceived as not being part of the established system where the state systematically cooperates with mainline religion. In fact, their political activities made them ever more suspicious. The Tai Ji Men case started as part of a crackdown against several religious and spiritual groups accused of not having supported the party then in power in the 1996 Presidential elections. In general, Tai Ji Men were perceived as thinking and acting independently of any political control.

Second, both Tai Ji Men and the Unification Church were accused of manipulating their followers both through traditional black magic and the modern version of black magic, i.e., brainwashing and mind control. While the “cult” rhetoric, of which accusations of brainwashing are the center, was consistently used, the Unification Church was also accused of performing strange rituals involving the spirits of the dead that evoked the ghost of black magic. Dr. Hong, the leader of Tai Ji Men, was ridiculously accused of “raising goblins,” a practice that was never part of his spiritual views and practices.

Third, ex-members who told false stories were mobilized. In Taiwan, the prosecutor who started the Tai Ji Men case created an “association of victims” of the movement. The association was, in one word, a fraud. Courts of law ascertained that the prosecutor invented it, started recruiting members, and created their tales as he deemed fit. Some of them were so false that in fact the “victims” had never belonged to Tai Ji Men.

Tai Ji Men demonstration in Taiwan.
Tai Ji Men demonstration in Taiwan.

In Japan, media and politicians up to the Prime Minister referred to evidence against the Unification Church supplied by one particular ex-member, who went under the pseudonym of Sayuri Ogawa. An award-wining journalist (who is also a sociologist) called Masumi Fukuda spent months checking Ogawa’s story and discovered, and proved with documents, that all its main details were false. By then, however, the damage had been done.

Summing up, the similarities between the Tai Ji Men and the Unification Church cases—of course, there are also differences—is explained by a tradition of hostility, prevailing in the Sinosphere since the Middle Ages, against spiritual movements who give the impression of thinking and operating independently and not being part of a system where religions are supposed to actively support the state. This hostility accuses the “bad” movements of opposing the government and using black magic (or its modernized version, brainwashing), and “proves” the accusation through the testimonies of disgruntles ex-members.

Recently, arguments taken from Western anti-cultists have been added, since anti-cultism has also been globalized. However, the widespread hostility against independent religious and spiritual movements also derives from a specific East Asian tradition.