The laws (plural) exist to affirm the supreme law (singular) of justice. They failed to do so in the case of Tai Ji Men.

by Marco Respinti*

*A paper presented at the webinar “7/13: Dawn of Victory for Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on July 13, 2022, 15th anniversary of the Taiwan Supreme Court decision declaring the Tai Ji Men defendants innocent of all charges.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on July 25th, 2022.

Tai Ji Men Protests in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men Protests in Taipei.

Fifteen years ago, the Supreme Court of Taiwan cleared Tai Ji Men of all the false accusations that had prevented its Shifu (Grand Master) and dizi (disciples) from enjoying the good life they were fundamentally entitled to as human beings.

It happened exactly fifteen years ago, on July 13, 2007. The persecution of Tai Ji Men through these false accusations had started in 1996, almost eleven years earlier. In total, it means that the Tai Ji Men case has now been going on for more than 26 years, more than a quarter of a century. This remains one of the most staggering aspects of the whole Tai Ji Men case. Such a long time within a democratic society…

Let me do some basic math. 11 years of persecution based on bogus accusations before concluding that these charges were false. Another 15 years for Tai Ji Men after its innocence was vindicated, which nonetheless it had to spend under the unbearable after-effect of what the highest court in Taiwan had declared to be a false case. Again, this is bewildering.

The positive side of the story, if I may dare say, is that it prompts a question. The question is, what do we mean by “the law”? The answer is at least twofold. First, the law is the whole of the norms that a group of humans—what we call a society—gives to itself to regulate internal cohabitation and coexistence. Let me be more precise. In the first of these two meanings, the laws (plural) that a society devises for itself are the rules aimed at granting a reasonable and decent measure of well-being to the members of that society. They thus open for all these individuals the possibility of a good life. The common good of a society is not just the mere sum of the individual good lives of its members. But it can never be the opposite of the good lives of  all its members.

The second meaning of “the law” (used in the singular) is the normative ideal of granting justice to humans. Laws (plural) should be the practical way to achieve the aim of the law (singular.)

Laws are fundamental because they contribute to keep order in a society. And law-abiding members of a society work to the best interest of that society. The laws of a society may be the best ever but unless its members respect them they would never achieve their aim. The first law of a society is morality, from which the effectiveness of all codified and customary laws depends.

The New Law,” a divine law brought by the Gospel, in a sculpture by Camillo Pacetti (1758–1826) at the Milan Cathedral, 1810. Credits.
The New Law,” a divine law brought by the Gospel, in a sculpture by Camillo Pacetti (1758–1826) at the Milan Cathedral, 1810. Credits.

We could comment on the notion of law for several hours, but at least two features of it are self-evident. The first is that laws are the product of trial and error. Laws are made by humans for humans and therefore are perfectible, never perfect, indeed often imperfect. The only perfect law is divine law, if you believe in it, and the natural law that directly derives from it. Some Western philosophers tried to articulate a concept of natural law with no reference to a divine law, but it was never persuasive.

Western thought distinguishes between two kinds of natural law: the law of inanimate nature and moral natural law found in humans. I understand that concepts in the East may differ. Interestingly, Christian Irish man of letters, philosopher, and novelist C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), in his “The Abolition of Man”, published in 1944, which many consider his most important book, uses the Chinese term and notion of Tao for referring to “Natural Law or Traditional Morality.” In his (and not only his) understanding, it is an encompassing law presiding on all of the universe. Lewis uses the notion of Tao within a Western, but indeed universal context, to advance his case that all humans, in all places and all times, believe in the same values. This happens because these values are objective and not human-made.

C.S. Lewis.
C.S. Lewis. Credits.

The Latin language and Roman law had two words to distinguish between the two dimensions of law (singular) and laws (plural). “Ius,” singular, indicated “what is right” (and conversely pointed at what is wrong). “Leges,” plural, meant specific practical laws, which tried to reach that noble goal.

I have been always fascinated by the fact that, in many languages, the term that in English sounds as “right” means both what is just and what a human being is entitled to by human nature. It is so in German, French, Spanish, Italian, and other languages. It indicates that the humans’ entitlement to something is inherently just.

The Latin dichotomy between ius and leges does not exist, as such, in the English language. It may prove very hard to translate to other languages and different cultural contexts. We should then at least ideally retain its deep value—and apply it immediately to the Tai Ji Men case.

If the law (ius) is created for granting the possibility of a good life to individuals, not all laws (leges) may be up to this ideal and standard. Upholding the noble concept of the law (ius), humans should then change and improve and enhance laws (leges) that are less-than-perfect or have proved to be inadequate or even plainly wrong. This is the high task of legislative bodies.

Silvestre David Mirys (1742–1810); engraved by Claude-Nicolas Malapeau (1755–1803), “The Twelve Tables,” the origins of all Roman “leges.”
Silvestre David Mirys (1742–1810); engraved by Claude-Nicolas Malapeau (1755–1803), “The Twelve Tables,” the origins of all Roman “leges.” Credits.

In 2007, fifteen years ago, the Supreme Court in Taiwan justly applied and translated into a ruling the ideal of the law (ius), i.e., that all Taiwanese citizens should be granted the conditions to enjoy a good life. However, some pitfalls in Taiwan’s judicial system allowed the 2007 Supreme Court ruling to remain substantially unenforced for years. A large number of Taiwanese citizens, i.e. Tai Ji Men Shifu and dizi, were unjustly condemned to the opposite of a good life through tax harassment.

To uphold law (ius) in Taiwan, which the Supreme Court affirmed fifteen years ago, some laws (leges) and regulations may need to be changed as soon as possible, to stop the blatant injustice suffered by Tai Ji Men. This should be the task of the Legislative Yuan, whose mandate includes avoiding and preventing injustice.

I mentioned earlier two self-evident characteristics of the law. The first is that laws are the product of trial and error. The Tai Ji Men case shows all too well the universal truth of this statement, with emphasis on the errors.

The second self-evident characteristic of the law is that no one is above the law—not the ruled and not the rulers. This is a universal principle held by all societies. When it is not respected, we indict a government as tyrannical, dictatorial, or totalitarian.

The Tai Ji Men case suggests that there are some pitfalls in the existing Taiwanese laws. They allowed unethical, unrighteous, and unprincipled state officers to persecute Tai Ji Men. By doing so, they damaged the Taiwanese citizens as a whole and the government of Taiwan, in both image and substance. Now, this same government should immediately act to grant Tai Ji Men what the Supreme Court defined as justice for them fifteen years ago. Taiwan’s leges should affirm the supreme principle of ius.