On the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, expert agreed that even today administrative oppression and unjust takes may reduce citizens to slaves.

by Alessandro Amicarelli

An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 10th, 2021.

On December 2, 2021, the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers organized one of their by-monthly webinars on the Tai Ji Men case, on the theme “Administrative Slavery vs. Religious Freedom: The Tai Ji Men Case.”

Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of Bitter Winter opened the webinar by reminding the audience that, when citizens are treated as mere tools to achieve the state’s aims, slavery is still at work. He then introduced a video on the cultural performances of Tai Ji Men, their international success, and the praise they have received from high political, religious, and cultural authorities both in Taiwan and abroad.

Massimo Introvigne, director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, discussed the different forms of slavery based on the experience of the Trinitarians, a Catholic religious order founded in the Middle Ages to gather money and use it to ransom Christians kidnapped and enslaved by the Barbary pirates of North Africa, a serious problem in Mediterranean Europe until the 19th century.

Introvigne reported that today the Trinitarians regard denial of FORB (freedom of religion or belief) as one of the modern forms of slavery, and he participated himself in one of their FORB conferences in Montreal in 2014. He regrets, Introvigne said, that at that time he was not familiar with the Tai Ji Men case. It would have been a perfect example of how administrative tools, taxes in particular, may be used for enslaving citizens and deny their FORB.

The full video of webinar.

Peter Zoehrer, an Austrian journalist who serves as executive director of FOREF (Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe), went through the history of slavery from the Egyptian and Roman empires to issues of forced labor and forced prostitution today, and presented the great figure of British politician William Wilberforce, who based on his Christian beliefs launched the movement for the abolition of slavery.

Zoehrer noted that historically, those fighting for FORB  were often fighting against slavery at the same time. Today, the fight has moved to Internet and the social media, and Zoehrer expressed the hope that through a strong Web presence Tai Ji Men may make their case so well-known internationally that the Taiwan government will be compelled to solve it. This, Zoehrer said, would also be in the best interest of Taiwan, whose international image has been tarnished by the administrative enslavement of Tai Ji Men.

Bhante Dharmapala, a well-known Italian Buddhist monk active in inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, with an academic background in philosophy, said he was very moved when he learned about the Tai Ji Men case, the more so as a philosophical reflection on the tax systems has long been part of his interests.

An image of the webinar.
An image of the webinar.

He reminded the audience that in primitive societies there were no taxes, and they were introduced when the state was born as a centralized apparatus that guaranteed internal public order and defense against external enemies, and requested resources for these purposes.

The problem with the modern states, the monk said, is that they continuously expand their activities, invading also fields that would be better left to civil society, thus needing constantly to increase taxes. Large corporations reacted by becoming transnational and skilled at avoiding taxes, with the result that states had to become even more aggressive in taxing small companies, individuals, and even spiritual organizations, in this case violating the principle that the latter should be tax-exempt. 

This is, Bhante Dharmapala concluded, what happened to Tai Ji Men, which became victims of the arrogance of a tax bureaucracy that is weak with the powerful and strong and even violent with the common citizens. He praised the fight of Tai Ji Men, and expressed the hope they could both participate in and be supported by an international conversation on the nature and limits of the tax systems.

Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers summarized some main features of the Tai Ji Men case and the reasons why it is internationally important, and introduced a video on the tribal populations of Taiwan. While they fight for their identity, some of them also support Tai Ji Men in its struggle for FORB and tax justice, as injustice in Taiwan would end up affecting all its ethnic components.

Fautré then introduced several witnesses. Oliver Lee, a Tai Ji Men dizi (disciple) and the current Secretary General of the Association of World Citizens (Taiwan), compared the Golden Triangle of drugs in Myanmar  to a “golden triangle” of bureaucratic corruption in the tax system of Taiwan. 

The first side of the triangle, Lee said, is that some tax officials issue tax bills without solid evidence. The second is that some administrative court judges in turn ignore the evidence and render biased verdicts in favor of the tax bureaucrats. The third is that officers of the Administrative Enforcement Agency rush to execute “death sentences” against taxpayers, by auctioning or confiscating property, even when they know that there are doubts about the verdicts. Not all bureaucrats are corrupted, Lee said, but some are, giving specific examples from the Tai Ji Men case.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.

Dr. Alex Liu, a hazardous disaster rescue consultant in the Fire Department of Kaohsiung Airport Station, is a dizi who was personally involved in fighting the most ridiculous accusation raised against Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the leader of Tai Ji Men. He was accused of raising goblins and, as evidence, the prosecutor offered a peach wood sword found during searches he sent investigators to perform  at the Tai Ji Men academies. Liu is very familiar with the sword, as it was part of a collection of artworks his mother had donated to Dr. Hong as a sign of gratitude for the health and spiritual improvements she had experienced after joining Tai Ji Men.

He knew the sword had nothing to do with raising goblins. His whole family started to protest, although it took years before courts concluded that  Dr. Hong and his co-defendants had not breached any law—and of course had not raised goblins. However, tax persecution continued, and Liu mentioned cases other than Tai Ji Men’s that show how cruel the tax system of Taiwan, corrupted by the immoral system of bonuses given to bureaucrats who issue tax bills, can be.

Annie Szu, a realtor with 17 years of experience of Tai Ji Men in California told how her health and even her character was greatly improved by the practice. She also reported how the events in Taiwan affected negatively dizi abroad as well.

Anne Szu at the webinar.
Anne Szu at the webinar.

She mentioned the bloody efforts the United States had to go through to abolish first slavery in the 19th century and then racial discrimination in the 20th. These efforts, Liu said, confirm that becoming and remaining free require great strength and patience. This is what she sees in the Tai Ji Men who protest in Taiwan, and hopes their resilience may bear fruit.

Jeff Kuo, a business development manager and Tai Ji Men dizi, observed that the African slave trade was officially abolished in the 19th century but subtler forms of slavery remain. Large companies employ workers in developing countries and pay substandard wages. Totalitarian states deprive citizens of their basic freedoms. Even democratic states such as Taiwan may enslave their citizens through administrative shackles.

In addition to the Tai Ji Men case, the most serious of them all, Kuo mentioned other instances of tax persecution he came across to in Taiwan. Mr. Huang is a pro bono attorney who handles estate cases given to him by the court for free. He received tax bills from the National Taxation Bureau for one of the cases he handled, even if he had not received any money for it. Professor Zeng’s home appliances caused a fire, and he was compensated by the manufacturer for the losses.

However, the National Taxation Bureau claimed the compensation should not be classified as a relief for the loss, but as an income, with the result that a tax bill was issued to Zeng and a fine was imposed.

Introduced as the youngest participant so far in these webinars, Hurles Chen is a 15-year-old Tai Ji Men dizi from South Africa. The country is significant for Tai Ji Men, who attended in Johannesburg in 2002 the U.N. Sustainable Development World Summit. In turn, the former South African President Frederik W. de Klerk, who was the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, rang the Tai Ji Men Bell of World Peace and Love when he visited Taiwan in 2001.

Hurles reported a direct experience of tax injustice, as her family had to leave Taiwan for South Africa after tax inspectors started disrupting their business and asked that they pay exorbitant sums for a settlement. They gladly discovered that in South Africa taxes and tax complaints are handled more fairly, Hurles said. 

Hurles Chen at the webinar.
Hurles Chen at the webinar.

Kiki Liu, an engineer and Tai Ji Men dizi, reported the story of how her entire family was affected by the persecution. When the 1996 crackdown on Tai Ji Men happened, Liu said, she was a ten-year-old girl. She tried to understand what was happening, although the accusations looked absurd to her. Later, as she saw the gross injustice of the case, she started participating in protests together with her parents. She did not stop, even after she married and got pregnant. During her pregnancy, she made a point not to miss the protests.

Now that her daughter is four years old, she takes her to the demonstrations. It is a question of justice, honor, and pride but it is also something that had introduced stress and pain in a life that as a young girl she was accustomed to see as only full of love, peace, joy, and the songs and dances she had learned to perform in the Tai Ji Men academy.

PierLuigi Zoccatelli, who teaches Sociology of Religions in two universities in Torino, Italy, concluded the webinar by proposing three reflections. First, he stated that the fight for the abolition of slavery succeeded because of the work of Christians, both Catholics (including Pope Gregory XVI) and Protestant, who were motivated by the idea that all human beings have a dignity and rights granted by God, irrespective of their conditions or the color of their skin.

Second, he added that these motivations had consequences, as the struggle against slavery continued as a struggle for all human rights. Without human rights, even when slavery is abolished, citizen remain in a situation similar to the slaves’.

Third, he noted that the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy first introduced the notion of “tax slavery,” which for him meant the taxation imposed on the poor, and the notion acquired a different meaning in American political thought to indicate excessive taxation. Zoccatelli added that Catholic social teaching maintains that paying taxes is a moral duty, yet, as Pope Benedict XVI stated while visiting Africa in 2009, excessively high or unjustly imposed taxes “may sometimes be illegal.”

This concept of “illegal taxes” is of the utmost importance for the Tai Ji Men case, Zoccatelli said. Taxes may be imposed against the law, however, what Benedict XVI was denouncing were taxes that formally respected the law yet were substantially and morally unfair and thus “illegal.”

Tai Ji Men dizi, Zoccatelli said, insist that the tax bills against Dr. Hong, including the one for 1992 that was maintained after the others were corrected to zero, and the auction and seizure of Tai Ji Men sacred land were “illegal.” Taiwanese bureaucrats continue to answer that maintaining the 1992 bill and auctioning the land had been authorized by (formally) valid administrative and legal decisions, thus cannot be illegal.

However, Zoccatelli concluded, what the Taiwanese authorities do not see is that there are two forms of illegality, one formal and one substantial. An act by a government or a decision by a court may be formally correct but patently and even monstrously unjust and unfair. In this case, it is substantially illegal, as it happened in the Tai Ji Men case.

Zoccatelli then introduced two videos, one musical and one realized in the form of a cartoon by Tai Ji Men children. The latter told the story of the Tai Ji Men case and of the global COVID-19 crisis as if it was a fairy take. However, fairy tales—as several participants commented—may sometimes be the best way to reveal deep truths.