While other matters dominated international comments on the 2024 Taiwanese elections, how they may impact religious liberty and the Tai Ji Men case should also be considered.

Rosita Šorytė*

*Introduction to the session “Religion in Taiwan After the 2024 Elections: Social and Tax Issues” at the European Academy of Religion 2024 conference, Palermo, Italy, May 20, 2024.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on May 24th, 2024.

The new President of Taiwan, Lai Ching-Te. Credits.
The new President of Taiwan, Lai Ching-Te. Credits.

There is a significant coincidence today and one we had not predicted when we submitted a proposal for this session. Today, May 20, is the day of the inauguration of the new President of Taiwan, Lai Ching-Te, as a result of his victory in the presidential elections of January 13, 2024.

Since I come from the field of politics, rather than religious studies, let me first offer some general comments on Taiwan’s 2024 elections. Both in the West and in Mainland China, obviously with opposite comments, the result was perceived as the victory of a pro-West candidate, Lai Ching-Te of the Democratic Progressive Party, against a pro-China candidate, Hou You-Ih, of the Kuomintang. As time passed, several scholars of Taiwanese politics denounced this narrative as simplistic. It is true that both candidates used it for their own purposes during the campaign. Hou accused Lai of putting the country at risk of a war with China. Lai’s campaign implied that Hou was a friend of China.

There are several problems in reconstructing the January elections in this way. One is that neither candidate seriously proposed to change the status quo situation in the Cross-Strait relations between China and Taiwan, which has not eliminated fears but has served Taiwan well for decades. Electoral rhetoric should not be confused with real projects. After the elections it can be added that, even if President Lai would like to significantly alter Taiwan’s Cross-Strait policies, he would not have a majority for that. In fact, the Democratic Progressive Party won the presidency, but did not win a majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s Parliament. Actually, the Kuomintang, whose presidential candidate was defeated, emerged as the party with most seats in the new Legislative Yuan, 52, against 51 of the Democratic Progressive Party. With respect to the previous legislature, the Kuomintang gained fourteen seats and the Democratic Progressive Party lost ten seats. The idea that the latter party won, and the Kuomintang lost, the 2024 elections should thus be qualified.

Neither party, however, may have a majority alone in the 113-members Legislative Yuan. Another weakness of the prevailing international media narrative is that it largely ignored the third candidate, Ko Wen-Je, who got 3.69 million votes against 5.59 of the victorious Lai, a respectable 26.46% of the total presidential vote. His party, Taiwan People’s Party, went from five to eight seats. His campaign can be considered successful. He attracted a significant portion of the vote of the youth, dissatisfied with the two main parties. Neither the Democratic Progressive Party nor the Kuomintang can have a parliamentary majority without the support of the People’s Party.

The “third” candidate, Ko Wen-Je. Credits.
The “third” candidate, Ko Wen-Je. Credits.

According to an estimate by the Minister of Interior, there are 33,000 places of worship in Taiwan, one for every square kilometer, which may well be the highest such density in the world. There is also a great number of new religious and spiritual movements. It is thus not surprising that all three main presidential candidates were busy visiting temples and religious organizations during the campaign. While this may be seen as opportunistic, it is also true that temples have been places for socializing and discussing current issues that have played a key role in Taiwan’s transition to democracy.

One issue that has been often discussed in the political debate, after Taiwan’s intelligence services alerted about it, is the possibility that China tried to destabilize or influence the elections through certain temples. The attention has been focused on temples honoring the sea goddess Mazu. The worship of Mazu originated in the Chinese southeastern province of Fujian. Many Chinese in Taiwan trace their origins to Fujian, and there are more than 1,000 temples honoring Mazu in the island. Many of them have been built recently: there were some 500 Mazu temples in 1980, and the number has doubled since then.

Although some scholars speak of “Mazuism” as a religion, there is no single organization of Mazu worshippers. However, there are networks connecting temples in Fujian, Taiwan, and the Chinese global diaspora, and pilgrimages to the historical Mazu places of worship in Fujian attended by believers from all over the world. While it has repressed other forms of folk religion, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not only tolerated but promoted international pilgrimages to Mazu shrines in Fujian and cooperation between temples in Fujian and Taiwan. Taiwan’s intelligence suspects that this is a case of Chinese soft power at work, and relationship between Mazu temples in Taiwan and Mainland China are manipulated by the CCP to influence Taiwanese culture, politics, and elections.

Mazu temple in Yanpu Township, Pingtung County, Taiwan, one among more than 1,000 such temples. Credits.
Mazu temple in Yanpu Township, Pingtung County, Taiwan, one among more than 1,000 such temples. Credits.

This may well be true, but cannot be generalized, since there are hundreds of different Mazu networks and organizations, and not all of them are favorable to the Chinese regime. The Mazu issue may also have obscured other questions involving religion of some importance in Taiwan’s public and political discourse.

In the previous legislature, the Legislative Yuan has passed a law discouraging the holding of temple properties in the personal name of the leaders of religious organizations, a practice that can be abused but is extremely common in Taiwan. This has led to concerns that the state may try to further interfere in how temples and spiritual organizations manage their own affairs.

The issue is extremely sensitive because Taiwan has a history of repressing freedom of religion and belief during the authoritarian and post-authoritarian periods of its post-World-War-II history. When the martial law was abrogated in 1987, full freedom of religion or belief was not immediately restored. In the first democratic presidential elections, held in 1996, a Kuomintang President sought to be re-elected. After he won by a comparatively narrow margin, he complained that religious and spiritual movements had conspired to oppose him. A crackdown was launched against several of them, using as tools accusations of fraud and tax evasion.

You will hear in this session about the longest-lasting case originating from the 1996 crackdown, the Tai Ji Men case. As happened in the case of most other religious and spiritual movements, charges against Tai Ji Men formulated in 1996 were declared ill-founded in the following decade by a judiciary that in the meantime had become reasonably independent. Tai Ji Men was cleared of all charges by a 2007 decision of the Supreme Court.

Yet, tax authorities in Taiwan operate with a comparative independence from courts of law. Even after the Supreme Court had declared that Tai Ji Men was not guilty of tax evasion, they maintained tax bills for six years, from 1991 to 1996. Protracted litigation eventually persuaded them to correct all tax bills to zero except one. For the year 1992, the National Taxation Bureau claimed that a decision against Tai Ji Men had become final, could not be changed, and was enforceable. It was in fact enforced in 2020 through the seizure of land in Miaoli belonging to Tai Ji Men and its leader.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

Several international scholars and human rights activists continue to write to Taiwanese authorities protesting this state of affairs. Most recently, their letters are transferred to the National Taxation Bureau, which answers that the decision about the year 1992 is final and there are no remedies to change a final decision in Taiwanese law.

Leading Taiwanese legal experts who support Tai Ji Men claim that this is not true and that, as it happens in most other democratic countries, in the law of Taiwan there is a provision, Article 117 of the Administrative Procedure Act, which allows to annul an erroneous or unjust administrative decision at any time.

Not being experts in Taiwanese law, foreign scholars can hardly comment on these issues. They can only say that, considering that how Tai Ji Men operated in 1992 was not different from the other years, maintaining the tax bill for that year only seems substantially unfair.

Although the President inaugurated today was the Vice President in the previous administration, new governments always try to distinguish themselves with some new attitudes and policies. We can hope that the new administration and Tai Ji Men will be able to engage in constructive dialogue and find a solution to the long-lasting case.