Administrative measures often disguise the bureaucrats’ attempt to eradicate spiritual movements they do not like.

by Holly Folk*

*Presented at the seminar “The Call to Fraternity and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers, Walnut, California, February 5, 2022, after the International Human Fraternity Day (February 4).

An article already published in Bitter Winter on February 15th, 2022.

A view of the Walnut seminar.
A view of the Walnut seminar.

I am still learning about the Tai Ji Men case, but I realize that it has international  significance, and should not be thought of as limited to Taiwan. I appreciate the efforts of Tai Ji Men to bring their efforts to the world’s attention. And “thank you” to Massimo Introvigne for helping arrange this meeting.

For many religious groups in East Asia, traditional arts and culture are important dimensions of their activities. Martial arts, calligraphy and flower arranging, and music and dance are recognized as spiritual practices in Taiwan, Korea, and other countries. And cultural renewal is part of the religious mission of Taoist-influenced groups, especially.

“Red envelopes” on display in Walnut for Chinese New Year.
“Red envelopes” on display in Walnut for Chinese New Year.

Furthermore, honoring gifts bestowed in red envelopes from disciples to masters or at New Years and other festivals are very common in Chinese culture—so much so that it invites speculation how the tax agency could have misinterpreted them as “tuition fees.”

The members of Tai Ji Men have gone to great efforts to provide complete and accurate information to the government, which has dismissed their attestations, while media have slandered the movement by using the “cult” rhetoric. Their case is a reminder that the “cult” designation is a very problematic framing—one that is intensely prejudicial. It predisposes the hearer to believe a group is involved in illegal activity.

Being labeled a “cult” facilitates the selective prosecution of minority religions, in both civil and criminal cases. In recent years, a similar pattern has unfolded in several countries, whereby manifestly false charges can proceed quite far through the legal system, when the accused is part of a new religious movement.

Furthermore, individual bureaucrats have been able to create ongoing problems for groups they personally don’t like, in clear violation of the principle of equal protection and other civil liberties.         

The seizure of the property of Tai Ji Men has created an even larger problem than the 1992 tax bill. This in particular points to a parallel with international cases.

One of the statues at the Mandarom. Photo by Massimo Introvigne.
One of the statues at the Mandarom. Photo by Massimo Introvigne.

In Southern France, controversies have persisted for many years over a proposed temple at the Holy City of Mandarom. Although the case is currently still litigated, a local village association has asked to block the construction. The courts have agreed with its request, and ordered the Esoteric Buddhist community of “Aumist” practitioners to put back in its original status the hillside that had been carved out for the temple site. The French court ordered a fine imposed daily until restoration was complete, with the express intent of ruining the Mandarom community financially.

Similarly, it appears that in the case of Tai Ji Men, one of the main goals of the tax agency has been to protect their own image and damage that of Tai Ji Men. What I myself am still reacting to, is the acute vindictiveness of tax bureaucrats here.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

Massimo Introvigne has theorized that “mianzi” (saving “face”) motivates the National Taxation Bureau to take the position they do. I am not sure they are aware of the irony of their strategy: for a government agency, to exploit a legal technicality speaks very negatively about their activities.