At one of the largest European gatherings of scholars of religion, academics and dizi discussed the situation in Taiwan.
by Daniela Bovolenta
An article already published in Bitter Winter on July 7th, 2022.
On June 23, 2022, a session discussed “New Religious and Spiritual Movements, Discrimination, and Democracy in Taiwan” at the annual conference of the EUARE (European Academy of Religion), one of the largest European organizations of scholars studying religion, held at the University of Bologna.
The session was attended by conference participants from China, Greece, Spain, France, and Italy, and was introduced by Rosita Šorytė of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB). As a former Lithuanian diplomat, she compared the problems of transitional justice, i.e. of rectifying the injustices of a past authoritarian regime after a transition to democracy, in Eastern Europe and Taiwan. She also expressed the opinion that there may be no strictly legal solution for the Tai Ji Men case, and the solution should now be political.
Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, explained a fundamental difference between China and Europe. In Medieval Europe, the emperors and kings were legitimated by a powerful and independent religious institution, the Roman Catholic Church. In Medieval China, there were no independent religious institutions—nor a word for “religion,” which came much later—and spiritual practitioners and institutions were declared legitimate or otherwise by the emperors.
Introvigne explained that this situation continued in Ming and Qing China, Republican China, Communist China, and even in Taiwan. Religious and spiritual organizations were supposed to actively support the powers that be. Even taking no political positions was regarded as not good enough. Those who didn’t were persecuted.
It is against this background, Introvigne said, that we can understand why in authoritarian and post-authoritarian Taiwan religious and spiritual movements that were perceived as not supporting the ruling party were persecuted, including Tai Ji Men. He then offered a chronology of the Tai Ji Men case, explaining why the tax bills, including the one for the year 1992 on which basis land regarded as sacred by the movement was auctioned off unsuccessfully and confiscated in 2020, were based on false assumptions and fabricated evidence.
The second speaker was Annie Cheng, a Tai Ji Men dizi from London. She listed six fundamental flaws in Taiwan’s tax system, which make its abuse to persecute religious and spiritual minorities easier, and are incompatible with Taiwan’s 2009 incorporation of the United Nations’ Two Covenants on human rights into its domestic law.
The first is the request that taxpayers, if they want to challenge a bill, should pay in cash or through a guarantee one third of the challenged amount. The second is the fact that those challenging a first tax decision get a review decision and, if they are still unhappy with it, it is only the review decision they can challenge in court. If the court cancels the review decision, the original first tax decision is not cancelled and remains in force, meaning that the taxpayer should seek a new review decision. If the taxpayer is still unhappy, a new decision by the court cancelling the second review decision may be sought, but again this would not cancel the original decision and would only enable the taxpayer to ask for a third review decision—and so on ad infinitum.
The third problem is that the so-called judges specialized in tax matters are certified as such even if their training is incomplete. The Taxpayer Rights Protection Act of 2016 also created Taxpayer Rights Ombudsmen, but they are bureaucrats from the Ministry of Finances who serve for two years and then return to the Ministry, making their independence questionable.
The fourth problem is that, unlike in other countries, the same judges may serve in different stages of the same tax (and other) proceedings without having to disqualify themselves, as happened with Judge Huang Shu-Ling in the Tai Ji Men case. The fifth is that parties have a hard time accessing the evidence, as demonstrated by the fact that Tai Ji Men was never allowed to check the results of a 2002 survey that were represented to the courts in a way they believe was false and misleading. The sixth problem is that bureaucrats (and prosecutors) who violate the laws are rarely, if ever, punished.
Cheng concluded that, until these six problems will be solved, Taiwanese bureaucrats will maintain in their hands powerful tools to use taxes to crack down on individual or movements they, for whatever reason, do not like and want to repress.
Huang Pin Chia, a graduate student at National Taiwan University in Taipei (currently in the process of transferring to Harvard), presented her experience as a dizi who was not born yet in 1996, when the Tai Ji Men case started, but has collected stories from those who were there. He described her experience as been part of four circles.
The first circle includes Taiwanese college students, who are passionate for human rights both for geopolitical reasons and because of the youths’ idealism. The war in Ukraine fueled this interest, as did official statements by both the U.S. and Taiwan’s government claiming that they will collaborate in protecting human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.
The second circle is of those who protest for the Tai Ji Men case and try to explain it to their friends who are not part of the movement. This is not difficult in Taiwan, Huang explained, because even those who do not know the Tai Ji Men case likely have experienced incidents of tax injustice among their relatives and friends.
The third circle includes the practitioners of martial arts and qigong, which remain popular among Taiwan’s youths. Huang discussed the success in Taiwan of the 2013 Hong Kong movie “The Grandmaster,” which told the story of the late martial art master Yeh Wen, famous for being the mentor of actor Bruce Lee. The film received good reviews for embodying the spiritual as well as the technical aspects of martial arts training, something Huang experienced herself by being trained by Dr. Hong.
The fourth circle, which came somewhat as a surprise for Huang, includes dozens of scholars and human rights activists throughout the world who took an interest in the case and supported Tai Ji Men. This globalization of the Tai Ji Men case, Huang concluded, creates embarrassment for the Taiwanese government, but how it will react to it remains unpredictable.
Marco Respinti, an Italian journalist and scholar who serves as director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, concluded the session with a reflection on the discussions that led to the approval of the American Constitution and its first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. He emphasized that the founding fathers of the United States insisted both on freedom of religion or belief and on tax justice. They knew that taxes can be used to persecute minorities, and they saw the connection between religious persecution and discrimination through taxes.
These may seem very old discussions, dating back to the late 18th century, Respinti said, but in fact the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan shows that they are very much relevant today. The Tai Ji Men case demonstrates that the fathers of the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights were right, Respinti concluded, when they expressed the fear that taxes may be used as a tool of religious discrimination.
Participants to the EUARE conference from different countries intervened in the discussion, evidencing that elsewhere similar problems were solved at the European Court of Human Rights or at the United Nations level, while Taiwan is not a member of a supra-national organization with legal powers nor of the U.N. They recommended that clear political requests be made to the government of Taiwan, and international support be gathered, particularly in the United States.
The session was the opportunity to present the special freedom of religion or belief June/July 2022 issue of the magazine The European Times, which introduces the Bologna conference and also has a long article by Introvigne on the Tai Ji Men case, and the comprehensive book on the same case “Who Stole Their Youth” as well as another book collecting several articles published by Bitter Winter on the issue.