The movement, the tax case, and the protests were introduced to a distinguished scholarly audience.
by Daniela Bovolenta
An article already published in Bitter Winter on August 12th, 2021.
On August 8, 2021, during the annual conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), one of the leading international societies for the scholarly study of religion, a session was devoted to “Relevant Spirituality: The Tai Ji Men Case and Protests in Taiwan.”
In 2020 and 2021, tens of thousands took to the street in Taipei to protest against the illegal seizure and auction of land intended for the Tai Ji Men’s self-cultivation center. It was the latest episode (so far) of the Tai Ji Men case, a 25-year legal saga that started in 1996, when the premises of the movement were raided and its leader and other members arrested. Eventually, Tai Ji Men won all the criminal cases, and those arrested were awarded national compensation for unjust imprisonment. As a by-product, however, a tax case is still going on. The session explored what the Tai Ji Men case tells us about the relevance of new religious movements and spiritual groups in Taiwan, how they manage to be heard by the media and politicians, and the role of religion in contemporary Taiwanese society.
Eileen Barker, professor emerita at the London School of Economics, and one of the founders of the modern discipline of the academic study of new religious movements, introduced the session summarizing the political and religious story of Taiwan, and the Tai Ji Men case. For somebody familiar with Taiwan, Professor Barker said, the Tai Ji Men case is surprising. It certainly was surprising for her, after she traveled several times to Taiwan and saw a flourishing religious diversity there. Some features of the Tai Ji Men case, she said, sound familiar: a crackdown on new religious movements driven by political reasons, an anti-cult movement that finds some support in the judiciary. However, later developments are surprising and incompatible with the image of Taiwan as a vibrant democracy. After criminal courts found Tai Ji Men innocent of all charges and no tax evasion, tax bureaucrats continued to harass it for 20 years, raising the question of their motivations and of the precarious status of minorities in contemporary Taiwanese society, she said.
Massimo Introvigne, another well-known scholar of new religious movements, and the managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religious Movements) in Torino, Italy, spoke on “Tai Ji Men: A Background.” What is Tai Ji Men, exactly? Introvigne asked. Rather than a religious movement, he answered, they prefer to be called a “menpai” (similar to a “school”) of martial art, Qigong, and self-cultivation, rooted in esoteric Taoism. The paper traced the story of Tai Ji Men and its expansion from Taiwan to other countries, and of its founder, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze. Introvigne tried to explain why the movement was attacked by the government in 1996, something that happened for political rather than religious reasons, and discussed the meaning of the massive street protests of 2020-2021. He also asked the question why some rogue bureaucrats stubbornly continued the tax persecution of Tai Ji Men even after it had become clear that this was damaging the image of Taiwan, at a time when the Taiwanese government needed all the international support it could mobilize. While the desire of greedy bureaucrats to pocket the bonuses connected with tax bills certainly played a role, another reason, Introvigne said, may be connected with the Chinese ideas of protecting mianzi, i.e. “saving face,” and guanxi, i.e., personal connections based on being regarded as serious and reliable. Having invested much of their reputation and credibility on the Tai Ji Men case, a prosecutor and several bureaucrats desperately tried to maintain that they were at least partially right on the tax evasion issue, in order to “save face,” which is crucially important in Chinese culture.
Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, presented “A Comparative study of State Control of Religions through Taxation in France and Taiwan.” He claimed that both French and Taiwanese bureaucrats have used and abused their taxation system to stigmatize peaceful, law-abiding but “unwelcome” religious groups and to try to destroy them financially. Interestingly, the argument used in France and Taiwan was the same. Tax authorities falsely claimed that gifts given by devotees or students to their organizations or spiritual masters, rather than non-taxable gifts, were in fact payment for different services and should be taxed. In France, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the main target and, after almost a decade and a half of legal battles, they won their case at the European Court of Human Rights. So did two organizations connected with the small Aumist Religion of the Mandarom, and the Evangelical Church of Besançon. They all won their cases at the European Court of Human Rights. In Taiwan, the action against Tai Ji Men by the National Taxation Bureau has been going on for 25 years despite victories in the highest jurisdictions, and the end of their battle is still not yet in sight, Fautré concluded, perhaps because citizens of Taiwan, unlike those of France, cannot appeal to a supra-national jurisdiction such as the European Court of Human Rights.
Pier Marco Ferraresi, a professor at the Italian University of Torino’s School of Economics, presented “An Economist’s View” of the Tai Ji Men case. What happened with Tai Ji Men in Taiwan, Ferraresi said, is important for economists too. It shows exactly how a tax system, confronted with spiritual movements, may be used politically as a tool for discrimination. Nearly all tax systems, whenever they are used as tools against a specific target, are unfortunately particularly effective, mainly due to three reasons, Ferraresi argued. First, tax levy directly turns the revenue of an individual’s work from the legitimate purposes of the taxpayer to the ones of the administrative authorities, which are not necessarily the same. Second, whenever government intervention within the economy expands, so does the tax burden. That frequently happens slowly and undetectably to the point where even a small change of tax policy greatly affects economic and family decisions. Third, tax persecutions, or even simply the Taxation Bureau’s mistakes, are difficult to be corrected, since, once initiated, they have a sort of “administrative inertia.” There are many reasons for that, one of them being that this kind of administration usually acts on a year-by-year logic, and is blind to the lack of consistency of its actions across the years. The Tai Ji Men case, Ferraresi said, is a clear example of all these points. “I sincerely admire the perseverance of Tai Ji Men in continuing their battle,” Ferraresi concluded, “and of those who try to inform the world about a case that is important for economists as well, as important as the rule of law and freedom can be. The international community should condemn those who have caused such gross human right violations against Tai Ji Men.”
Linda Chen, a post-doctorate research associate at Dalhousie University in Canada, and a dizi (disciple) of Tai Ji Men herself, presented an insider’s perspective of the Tai Ji Men protests connected with the tax case. She also introduced a book published in Chinese in 2020 and in English in 2021 entitled “Who Stole Their Youth?” which documents the dilemma of Tai Ji Men members facing State power and bureaucrats in Taiwan. Chen described four phases in the activities of Dr. Hong, the Grand Master (shifu) of Tai Ji Men, which all continue to this day. First was the spiritual activity of the Tai Ji Men academies, teaching self-cultivation, Qigong, and martial arts. Second, was the global movement for international peace and love. Third, the Movement for an Era of Conscience, which led to the United Nations proclaiming April 5 as International Day of Conscience. Fourth, after the tax persecution started, rather than defending only themselves, Tai Ji Men promoted tax and legal reform in Taiwan for the benefit of all citizens. This movement is now becoming international, and Chen called for a cooperation between scholars, human rights activists, and dizi to bring the Tai Ji Men case to a solution that has not been found in 25 years.