Belgium’s academic capital hosts an important yearly conference on freedom of religion and belief. Tai Ji Men dizi were there.
by Massimo Introvigne
An article already published in Bitter Winter on May 17th, 2023.
The different universities in Leuven, which has been Belgium’s academic capital since the 15th century, have often hosted concerts, but May 2023 might have been the first time when the notes of classic Taiwanese opera resonated in one of their halls. It happened on May 4 at the Evangelical Theological Institute (ETF), whose origins date back to 1919, which teaches theology and religious studies to Christians of all denominations. Robin Liang, a dizi (disciple) of Tai Ji Men, performed admirably in traditional Taiwanese opera dress for the delegates of the international conference “Secular States Struggling with Religious Freedom,” where she was also a speaker.
One of the peculiarities of the ETF is that it hosts an Institute for the Study of Freedom of Religion or Belief (ISFORB), which has emerged as a leading international academic institution in the field of religious liberty studies, and organizes every year a conference on this subject. Just as it happened in 2022, Tai Ji Men dizi were there for the May 4 and 5 conference of 2023.
On May 4, the Tai Ji Men case was shortly introduced during the opera performance in the ETF dining hall. On May 5, papers on East Asia compared two main freedom of religion or belief issues in the area: the crackdown on the Unification Church/Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in Japan and the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan.
I presented the situation in Japan and Judith Chiu, a Tai Ji Men dizi who works as channel sales director in a multinational information software company in Taiwan, presented the history of Tai Ji Men, and how its current Shifu (Grand Master), Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, inherited an esoteric Taoist wisdom and decided to make it available to a modern world suffering of physical and mental imbalances by establishing the first Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy in 1966.
Chiu traced the development of Tai Ji Men both as a menpai (similar to a school) of martial arts, self-cultivation, and qigong, and an organization known throughout the world for its peace education initiatives and for spreading a message of peace, love, and conscience, which Dr. Hong has brought to the 101 countries he has visited with his dizi. Chiu also emphasized the role of Dr. Hong, in cooperation with others, in having the United Nations proclaim April 5 as the International Day of Conscience.
Discussing the five treasures—health, joy, happiness, wisdom, and wealth—dizi acquire through their qigong and kung fu practice, Chiu told her moving personal story of helping her husband, who was unconscious after a stroke, to gradually recover and improve. She explained that the Tai Ji Men practice of spreading positive energy and good thoughts does not only help in personal dramas like her husband’s, but also in domestic and international tragedies such as earthquakes and epidemics.
Chiu concluded that a harmonious world ruled by conscience is also a world where human rights prevail, including freedom of religion or belief and tax justice. These remarks introduced the audience to the Tai Ji Men case, whose story was told by Robin Liang, a former firefighter and Tai Ji Men dizi.
Noting that Taiwan lacked a tradition and culture of religious liberty, Liang described the politically motivated crackdown of 1996 on religious and spiritual movements accused of not having supported the candidate of the ruling party, who eventually won, in the first democratic Taiwanese presidential elections, held in 1996. The repression also affected Tai Ji Men, whose Shifu was detained together with his wife and two dizi.
Liang noted that a positive element emerged from this persecution, i.e., that an independent judiciary resisted the political pressures and declared Dr. Hong and his co-defendants innocent of all charges, including an alleged tax evasion, in first degree, on appeal, and at the Supreme Court in 2007. However, Liang noted, while the judiciary proved its independence and willingness to pursue a democratic path, the same was not true for the National Taxation Bureau, which continued to harass Tai Ji Men with unfounded tax bills, even after the Supreme Court had clearly stated that the group was not guilty of tax evasion.
Eventually, all tax bills were corrected to zero, except the one for 1992, which the National Taxation Bureau maintained based on the technical argument that a decision on this year, unfavorable to Tai Ji Men, had already become final in 2006 before the Supreme Court declared in 2007 that the tax evasion did not exist. Obviously, a patently wrong decision can always be corrected even after it has become final, Liang noted, but the National Taxation Bureau stubbornly maintained the 1992 bill. Based on this ill-founded bill, land regarded as sacred by Tai Ji Men and intended for a self-cultivation center was confiscated, unsuccessfully auctioned, and seized in 2020, generating widespread protests by dizi in both Taiwan and the United States, and criticism by international scholars and human rights activists.
Liang concluded with two comments based on her experience as a firefighter. First, her encounters with earthquakes told her that they are natural disasters but sometimes the number of casualties is increased by the fact that buildings were allowed to be built ignoring safety rules due to corruption. This shows, she said, that corruption, which was obviously at work in the Tai Ji Men case, should not be taken lightly and may actually cause the loss of human lives. Second, Liang noted that firefighters in Taiwan receive bonuses for special acts of bravery. However, her study of the bonuses tax bureaucrats receive in Taiwan, persuaded her that bonuses should be granted to public servants only in very special circumstances. When their use becomes generalized, corruption follows, as evidenced by the problems of the tax system in Taiwan and the Tai Ji Men case.
Rosita Šorytė, a member of the scientific committee of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief and a former diplomat with twenty-five years of experience, asked the question why democratic countries such as Japan and Taiwan acts undemocratically when it comes to certain religious and spiritual minorities, as it happened in the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan and is now happening in Japan with the crackdown on the Unification Church. She answered that in what scholars call Sinosphere, i.e. the area where Chinese culture has been influential, which includes Mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea, there is a traditional idea that religions should support the governments and gather consensus for them. This explains the problems of Western scholars in deciding whether Confucianism in China and Shinto in Japan were religions, social systems organizing and ritualizing the support for the governments, or both at the same time.
Notwithstanding the democratization processes in both Japan and Taiwan, a culture of suspect towards religious and spiritual movements that think and act independently from the powers that be, Šorytė said, still persists there. Normally the movements stigmatized as “cults” or “xie jiao” in the Sinosphere, she added, have three features: they are accused of not supporting the governments, they are suspected of using black magic (or its modern version, brainwashing), and accusations against them are supported by “victims” or ex-members whose stories are sometimes false and invented by media and prosecutors.
This happened in the case of the Unification Church in Japan, she said, which is a Korean group operating outside of the traditional Japanese system of religions, is accused both of brainwashing and of “black magic” rituals involving the spirits of the deceased, and is slandered by ex-members whose stories in some cases have been exposed as false. Similarly, Tai Ji Men was persecuted in 1996 because of its independence and accused of not supporting the ruling party, its Shifu was ridiculously accused of “raising goblins,” and the prosecutor who started the case created a false “associations of victims.”
Thus, Šorytė concluded, while there are elements of the violation of freedom of religion or belief of certain minorities that are international, certain specific East Asian cultural features also have a role in the problems of the Unification Church in Japan and Tai Ji Men in Taiwan.
Chris Vonck, former rector of the Faculty for Comparative Study of Religions in Wilrijk, Antwerp, presented some conclusive remarks on the session, expressing his admiration for the work of Tai Ji Men and offering a sad comment on the fact that those who work in our world for love, peace, and conscience are too often repaid with hostility and misunderstanding.
The ISFORB conferences present every year the most important case of violation of freedom of religion or belief throughout the world. It is important that the Tai Ji Men case continues to be featured there.