We live in tragic days, which reminds us that discrimination can easily escalate to persecution and violence.

by Karolina Maria Hess*

*A paper presented at the webinar “Tai Ji Men: 25 Years of Discrimination,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on March 1, 2022, United Nations Zero Discrimination Day.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on March 10th, 2022.

A Ukrainian refugee with her child arrives in Poland. Credits.
A Ukrainian refugee with her child arrives in Poland. Credits.

Today’s meeting on Zero Discrimination Day is extremely important for me. From the time we planned this meeting to the moment it happened, I woke up in a different world. In a world where thousands of innocent people are dying abroad. Terrible wars are happening around the world all the time, but not always do they affect everyone, and rarely affect equally. This time the zone of fire has reached Eastern Europe. The Russian aggression against Ukraine has caused a huge humanitarian crisis and, as in every war, refugees are looking for refuge in neighboring countries.

This week, in my family home, I am currently making the final arrangements to accommodate mothers with children fleeing Ukraine and coming to Poland, dozens of whom are reaching my city. The reaction of the public was very quick and edifying; help is being  provided from everywhere. There is, however, an element of bitterness in all of this, and that bitterness has to do with religious inequality and tolerance. At another border, Belarus, not much further north, refugees from the war in Afghanistan have had problems of crossing the borders for months.  Unfortunately all of them, despite their personal histories, have become an element of a calculated political game, and even one-year-old children are dying of cold in Polish forests. This is a tragedy for all of us. For those who can help, the response to refugees of other religions, especially Islam, is often negative, due to media campaigns. The whole situation further illustrates what escalation can be created by malicious words of inequality.

Tired of this difficult religious image of Europe, still marked by religious scuffles, with optimism, as a researcher, but also as a human being, I looked at Taiwan. When I got there for the first time, it was part of a CESNUR academic conference about new religious movements around the world. It was an upbuilding and refreshing experience. My great interest was the fact of religious plurality, high tolerance, and popularity of smaller groups—something unimaginable in a country like mine, where the media is creating a false myth of a religious monolith. In Poland, new religious movements do not have much recognition, and in Taiwan I found what seemed a completely different situation, and it was an uplifting experience by all means. Visibility in society and media, some new religions running their own universities—all these were clear signs of acceptance and tolerance. A good example is the visibility of the Tai Ji Men group, which for example has its own television program, and organized performances in leading sport events in Taiwan and even at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Interestingly, these were artistic performances with high aesthetic value, but also with an inner message, and even a conviction of what we can call their healing power. The cultural differences with my own country in the reception of such groups related to spirituality, their visibility, popularity, and wide acceptance in Taiwan—all this interested me very much.

Karolina Maria Hess with Massimo Introvigne at the 2018 CESNUR conference in Taiwan.
Karolina Maria Hess with Massimo Introvigne at the 2018 CESNUR conference in Taiwan.

However, when I decided to delve into this topic a bit more, it turned out that in Taiwan not all problems of human rights had been resolved, including the rights to freedom of conscience and to freely practice a religion or spirituality, which is an important foundation of modern societies. How surprised I was when it turned out that it was Tai Ji Men which was organizing mass protests because it was struggling with problems of discrimination! My first thought was they were discriminated on the basis of belief, yet, in light of what I said above, this did not seem to make much sense.

It was, I must admit, something incomprehensible to me. In my experience, rooted in East-Central Europe, the problems of new religious movements are primarily ideological and have strong ties to politics and the dominant religions. New religions and various currents of spirituality are often marked in the media discourse as “cults”  (the word used is, literally, “sect,” but it plays the same derogatory role as the English “cult”). Any interest in them is treated as something suspicious, and religionists would see in it a threat of eternal damnation for every lost soul. So when I first came across the Tai Ji Men case, I did not recognize there the dynamics I know from my Eastern European experience, but only their distant background, a kind of reverberation, which perhaps was not even the core of the matter.

This background is a similarity between the meaning of the terms “sekta” in Polish or “cult”  in English and the understanding of the term “xie jiao”in Taiwan. I will not go into details of the comparison of these two terms. For most scholars who deal with spirituality in Taiwan, as well as those who are familiar with the Tai Ji Men case, the connotations of the terms are known, and the structural similarities, as well as the differences,  between “xie jiao” in Chinese and “cult” in English.

On the other hand, it should be emphasized that due to the specific historical and cultural context, as Massimo Introvigne, Rosita Šorytė, and even scholars from Mainland China have argued, it would be more methodologically appropriate to just use the word “xie jiao” transliterated from Chinese, rather than translating it. After all, we do not translate terms like “qigong” or “feng shui.” The fact that there are structurally similar processes at work should not lead to translating “xie jiao” as “cult,” with all the resulting consequences, because important differences can be found between them.

As important as this question of terminology can be, I believe it only offers a background of the Tai Ji Men case. In the end, Tai Ji Men was persecuted by using an accusation very tangible and understandable by anyone and everywhere—tax evasion. Tai Ji Men was completely cleared of all charges, including tax evasion. The accusation itself and the trial that lasted for years, however. were in themselves an undeserved punishment. Every next day Tai Ji Men was burdened with suspicions, accusations, and unfair harassment. Then. after the verdict of innocence, which should have dispelled all doubts, a whole machine of obstacles unexpectedly continued to accumulate, tax bills continued to be issued, and land was confiscated. This is simply absurd.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

There can be many reasons for this. Among them, we can find historical aspects and remnants of Taiwan’s authoritarian past in the functioning of some institutions of the state apparatus. We can also, as Massimo Introvigne suggested in one of his articles, assume that the decisions of the National Taxation Bureau (NTB) were simply a desperate attempt to save face. The problem is that the first of these explanations evokes a systemic error and a mechanism that has not been fixed. In the second, the effect is exactly the opposite of what was intended: being stuck in a wrong decision does not save the face of those responsible, and again shows that the system needs fixing. A workable bureaucratic mechanism should be built on rational, not emotional, foundations. There is no reason whatsoever to protect the emotions of bureaucrats,  particularly when they affect thousands of Tai Ji Men disciples who suffer both materially and emotionally.

Researchers in the fields of humanities and social sciences, while using concepts such as “mechanism,” know they are not dealing with machines. Working with people is always dynamic. We are to sow the ideas of equality across all divisions and be, let’s say, midwives of social change—so that, regardless of the cultural context, these ideas may come to light, be nurtured, and grow. But there are, of course, various limitations on the possibilities of what we are able to do, as well as limitations to our tools. It is difficult to imagine that the position of social scientists may really indirectly influence, for example, the decisions of a tyrant. But there are aspects in which we can have a real impact on some changes—when the difficulties are solvable, when good will and the human factor are decisive. Perhaps such is the case of Tai Ji Men. I hope that on the next Zero Discrimination Day we will gather again to celebrate how, after more than two decades, we managed to contribute to the solution of this Tai Ji Men case—absurd in its causes, but very harmful in its effects.