On International Day of Democracy, lecturers from different countries explained why the case is a test for Taiwan’s democratic transition.

by Alessandro Amicarelli

An article already published in Bitter Winter on September 20th, 2021.

Webinar cover slide

To celebrate the United Nations’ International Day of Democracy, CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, which is the parent organization of Bitter Winter, and Human Rights Without Frontiers organized on September 15, 2021, one of their regular webinars discussing the Tai Ji Men case. This time, the theme was “Democracy, Transitional Justice, and the Tai Ji Men Case.”

Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, introduced the webinar. After presenting a video where top Taiwanese officials praised Tai Ji Men for its positive contribution to the social life and image of Taiwan (which makes the persecution even more absurd), Respinti proposed a reflection on the concepts ofdemocracy, liberty, and peace. No true democracy, he said, can exist without religious liberty, and conversely no religious liberty can exist without democracy. For Tai Ji Men, there was no democracy, no liberty, and no peace, Respinti observed, during the authoritarian and post-authoritarian periods in Taiwan. Transitional justice, the other theme of the webinar, should offer an opportunity to repair and rectify the injustices perpetrated in these periods against all Taiwanese citizens, including Tai Ji Men, whose case is emblematic, Respinti said, and is still in need of a solution.

Massimo Introvigne, editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, further explored the concept of transitional justice. While the expression “transitional justice” was coined by scholars, and adopted by the United Nations, in the last decade of the 20th century, already after the end of World War II the idea was affirmed that, when a country moves from a non-democratic to a democratic phase, crimes against human rights perpetrated by the old regime should be investigated, rectified, and punished. Introvigne offered the example of post-Fascist Italy to show how finding an equilibrium between justice and national reconciliation is difficult, and compared it to the situation in Taiwan. There, some progress has been achieved but the fact that only violations of human rights perpetrated before November 6, 1992, are considered makes it impossible to act with respect to the very serious violations of freedom of religion or belief that occurred during the politically motivated crackdown of 1996, and even later, against several religious and spiritual movements, including Tai Ji Men.

The video of the webinar.

Daniela Bovolenta, who also writes for Bitter Winter, summarized the history of the concept of democracy, from ancient Athens to modern declarations of human rights. She noted that elections where all citizens are allowed to vote are not enough to consider a country democratic. It is also necessary that rotations between different political parties in power really and repeatedly happen, that the separation of powers works effectively, and that bureaucrats are kept in check by the legislative and the judiciary. In the Tai Ji Men case, both the Legislative Yuan and courts of law tried to tell the National Taxation Office that tax bills against Tai Ji Men and its founder, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, were illegal and should be withdrawn, but they were not listened to, Bovolenta said, proving that problems still exist in Taiwan’s transition to democracy.

Patricia Duval, a well-known Paris human rights and religious liberty attorney and scholar, observed that when she first learned of the Tai Ji Men case, she was surprised that the Taiwan government was ignoring the risk of being criticized internationally. On the other hand, her experience in France told her that sometimes opponents of religious and spiritual minorities do not take these risks into account. Duval noted that Taiwan in 2009 ratified and included in its national law the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These, as they have been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights and other international jurisdictions, including in tax and religious liberty decisions, should have been applied to the Tai Ji Men case and led to its solution, but they didn’t.

Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, stated that Taiwan is a democracy, but no democracy is perfect. The Tai Ji Men case offers to Taiwan an opportunity to see, as if in a mirror, what is imperfect in its democratic system. It should now be solved, Fautré said, without delay.

Fautré then introduced a video where scholars told the story of the Tai Ji Men tax case and evidenced the abusive and illegal nature of the tax bills, and gave the floor to six witnesses.

A moment of the webinar.
A moment of the webinar.

Professor Lin Tsan-Tu, from the Law Department of Aletheia University, and a former judge, discussed a key question in the Tai Ji Men case. The National Taxation Bureau, after acknowledging that courts of law had established that Tai Ji Men had not evaded taxes, corrected to zero the tax bills it had issued for the other years, but maintained the bill for the year 1992. They claimed that for that year the statute of limitation had expired and Tai Ji Men had no further recourses. Lin noted that, recognizing a mistake, the Bureau could have corrected it spontaneously, but it didn’t. As for the matter of the five-year statute of limitation, Lin said it is controversial, and he believes the law should be amended. He also noted that the same Judge Huang decided the question of the 1992 tax bill against Tai Ji Men both in the lower court and in the Supreme Administrative Court, which is against the law and can be another ground for re-examining the decision. Finally, Lin commented that the entire procedure did not operate in accordance with the relevant laws and regulations, and the way the Enforcement Agency handled the case sparked much debate.

Professor Hwang Giin-Tarng teaches in the Department of Political Science of National Taiwan University, asked what can be done to rectify the Tai Ji Men situation. The National Taxation Bureau and the National Enforcement Agency can always spontaneously correct their mistakes, but they probably wouldn’t. Hwang believes that the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Justice, the Executive Yuan collectively, or President Tsai, all have the power to direct the tax and enforcement agencies to reopen the case. They should find the courage to do it, Hwang concluded, if they want to show to the world that Taiwan is resolutely advancing on its path toward democracy.

Eva Mao is a dizi (disciple) of Tai Ji Men, who was only a six-year-old child when the persecution started in 1996. But she still remembers the pain, the more so because she was bullied for being part of Tai Ji Men. As she grew up, she participated in the protests, and also reflected on how tax injustice and legal uncertainty, so apparent in the Tai Ji Men case, affect Taiwan’s economy and threaten its future.

Eva Mao at the webinar.
Eva Mao at the webinar.

Clyde Chien, another dizi and the retired chief financial officer of a computer company in Taiwan, on the other hand, joined Tai Ji Men in 2016, after retirement. His long experience in financial matters led him not only to conclude that Tai Ji Men had been the victim of gross injustice, but that its case was just the tip of an iceberg. The tax system in Taiwan, he said, is deeply dysfunctional. It leads to systemic injustice against citizens and scares away foreign investors.

Andy Lu is a medical clerk at Kaohsiung Medical University. He reported that he was led to devote his life to medicine and the health of others by his practice of qigong and by listening to Dr. Hong’s teachings since he was a child. He knows from first-hand experience that these teachings are only aimed at bringing peace and love to the world and helping others, and is deeply disturbed by the tax persecution. He insisted that Tai Ji Men’s protests are not about money. Dizi do not accept to compromise or settle for a reason of conscience, as they know they have never evaded taxes, and believe their fight also helps others who have been compelled to pay illegal tax bills and have greatly suffered.

Yang Ya-Han at the webinar.
Yang Ya-Han at the webinar.

Yang Ya-Han is the administrator of a semiconductor engineering company in Taiwan. She shared her memories of happy days with her family, where all were Tai Ji Men dizi, the distress caused by the persecution, and the joy and excitement of her parents when on July 13, 2007, Dr. Hong and his co-defendants were found innocent of all charges by Taiwan’s highest criminal court. They believed this was the end of the Tai Ji Men case, but unfortunately the illegal tax prosecution continued, and Yang and her family had to spend time protesting in the streets and wondering whether Taiwan is a democracy or just pretends to be one.

Peter Zoehrer presents Tai Ji Men video on COVID-19.
Peter Zoehrer presents Tai Ji Men video on COVID-19.

The webinar was concluded by Peter Zoehrer, an Austrian journalist who serves as executive director of Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF). He also introduced a video showing Tai Ji Men’s efforts to help fighting the COVID-19 pandemic through common-sense tips and advice. Zoehrer commented that the Tai Ji Men case, like other incidents where FORB is violated, became impossible to be ignored by Taiwan authorities when it was internationalized through the work of independent scholars and media. He praised the role of Bitter Winter in this respect, both for its campaign about the Tai Ji Men case and its general efforts on behalf of FORB. NGOs also helped. It is now the turn of Taiwan’s politicians to act decisively and solve the case.