A look at Taiwan’s history and problems, including one the West is not familiar enough with—Tai Ji Men.

by Kenneth A. Jacobsen

An article already published in Bitter Winter on March 12th, 2022.

A Tai Ji Men protest caravan passing in front of the Presidential Office Building in Taipei.
A Tai Ji Men protest caravan passing in front of the Presidential Office Building in Taipei.

As diplomatic tensions with China reach a feverish pitch, U.S. Congressional delegations make almost monthly pilgrimages to Taiwan, a tiny island just 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, which claims Taiwan as part of its own sovereign territory. This geopolitical chess match pits American commitment to democratic countries in the South China Sea against the expansive appetite of China, flexing its own substantial military muscle in that volatile region of the world. A similar scenario is being played out thousands of miles away in Russia, where its invasion of Ukraine has set off global alarm bells.

 Will the United States really intervene in any aggressive action by China against Taiwan? Almost certainly not. First of all, there are insurmountable practical obstacles to any such defensive efforts.  Being thousands of miles away on the other side of the globe, and given the close proximity of Taiwan to China, any invasion of Taiwan by China would be over before the U.S. could mount any effective defense of the island, despite our substantial naval military presence in that region.

Equally important, after decades of fighting in the Middle East at a cost of trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, the American public has little appetite for intervening in another conflict to defend an island that most could not even locate on a map.

Taiwan (then called Formosa) was formed in 1947 when General Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island following a protracted civil war on the mainland, which brought Mao-Tse-tung to power and more than seven decades of Communist rule. There followed in Taiwan a period of 40 years of brutal—and bloody—martial law. But despite being exiled on an island tiny in comparison to its mainland counterpart, Taiwan continued to insist that the Communist rebellion was only that—a protracted insurrection against the only true government.

The official name of China as we know it is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan is confusingly known as the Republic of China (ROC). And for decades, they both battled for recognition on the international political stage as the only true international representative of China. Both embraced the “one China” policy, meaning that each was the only official government of China, and that diplomatic relations could be maintained with only one (but not both) of them.

The global community at first embraced Taiwan, which became an original member of the United Nations and one of five permanent members of its Security Council. But over the years, the emerging economic power and political influence of the PRC could not be ignored, and China demanded a seat at the diplomatic table. Both the PRC and the ROC opposed separate sovereignty, as both claimed to be the only true international representative of China. Chiang in particular feared that recognition of two “Chinas” would cause the ROC to lose its coveted seat at the Security Council to the PRC—a sworn enemy that he still considered to be a rogue, rebellious organization.

 Things changed dramatically in 1971 with the passage of a U.N. resolution, opposed by the U.S., expelling Taiwan from the U.N. and recognizing the PRC as the legitimate representative of China. While formally opposing the resolution, the U.S. recognized the strategic benefit of a closer alliance with the PRC in the global power struggle with yet another superpower—the Soviet Union.

Since its ejection from the U.N., Taiwan has remained in a diplomatic “Twilight Zone.” On the one hand, the United States professes unwavering support for Taiwan’s sovereignty and independence, as evidenced by the recent procession of Congressional delegations. On the other hand, the United States itself refuses to recognize Taiwan as an independent, sovereign nation.

There are no official embassies in either Washington, D.C. or Taipei. Rather, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the United States is called the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States,” while its American counterpart in Taiwan is called the “American Institute in Taiwan.” Some countries have official foreign relations with Taiwan. Most do not. And Taiwan is frozen out of any organizations affiliated with the United Nations.

In 1991, Taiwan finally recognized the reality of the separate existence of China, even though China to this day refuses to recognize the independence or even existence of Taiwan. Shifting strategies, Taiwan has sought readmission to the U.N. as a separate country, an effort successfully thwarted by China for decades given its claim of ownership of the island, since membership in the U.N. is limited only to sovereign states.

Taiwan elected its first democratically elected President in 1996. Before that, the country was ruled with an iron fist by Chiang and his family, and by a series of Presidents selected by the National Assembly. But that year also began a sordid chapter in Taiwan’s image as a democratic society with respect for the Rule of Law—a blemish on Taiwan that continues today, decades later.

Because some religious organizations had supported other candidates in its first popular election, and apparently unable to shed the totalitarian practices of its past, the government in 1996 began a sweeping crackdown on what it deemed to be religious “cults.”  Among the organizations caught up in this political crossfire was a martial arts organization named Tai Ji Men, which is apolitical and had never engaged in any partisan political activity.

Tai Ji Men is a school of martial arts that practices Qigong, an ancient regimen of physical exercises and mental concentration that improves physical and emotional well-being and spiritual health through coordinated body movements, breathing and meditation. Tai Ji Men integrates dance, music, drumming, flags and elaborate ceremonies into its celebration of traditional Taiwanese culture. The organization embraces a holistic approach to the martial arts, while also placing significant emphasis on moral values and principles.

There is no tuition or other fees for joining Tai Ji Men or practicing Qigong at any of the many Tai Ji Men academies in Taiwan or located elsewhere around the world, including the United States. Instead, students offer discretionary honorariums to the academy and its founder in appreciation for the mental, physical and spiritual growth that they experience practicing Qigong and participating in Tai Ji Men’s extensive global activities advocating world peace.

These cash gifts—contained in “red envelopes” common throughout that part of Southeast Asia—reflect their respect for their spiritual leader and are customary in Taiwanese culture.  

Red envelopes are commonly exchanged at weddings, birthdays and other important celebrations and holidays in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and many other countries in that region. Stores in Chinese-American neighborhoods throughout the United States sell a variety of “red envelopes”—from the ornate to the plain—to those who practice this traditional custom of Southeast Asian culture here.

Caught up in the government crackdown, prosecutors in Taiwan arrested members of Tai Ji Men and their leader and seized their assets, including bank accounts and properties used to practice Qigong and for spiritual retreats. After languishing in prison for four months, the leader of Tai Ji Men was indicted on the absurd charge of “raising goblins” (I kid you not!) and for violating tax laws. The indictment’s principal tax accusation was that Tai Ji Men was a so-called “cram” school (like a short-term program that prepares students for the SAT or other entrance exams), that gifts from its members were tuition, and that Tai Ji Men had engaged in tax evasion by not paying taxes on the red envelopes.

For 25 long years, Tai Ji Men fought the charges—and only recently won, at great expense and emotional and physical toll to its members and leader. They won every criminal trial, including the government’s appeal to the highest criminal appeals court in Taiwan. They won every administrative proceeding and all appeals for the tax assessments illegally imposed by government officials—except one. In a blatant act of retaliation, the government continued to pursue taxes and penalties for red envelopes exchanged in 1992—30 years ago.

There is absolutely no basis in law or under fundamental principles of fairness and justice for Taiwan to perpetuate its relentless crusade against Tai Ji Men. The 1992 gifts were no different than the voluntary contributions that the members had made in the other years for which these victims of prosecutorial and administrative misconduct obtained complete vindication and exoneration. But the government did. In August 2020, the government of Taiwan auctioned sacred properties of Tai Ji Men that it had seized to satisfy the 1992 tax bill.

There were no bidders at the auction, so the Taiwan government owns these properties. Other properties seized by the government decades ago before Tai Ji Men ever had its first day in court were allowed to deteriorate and fall into disrepair, and are now decrepit and uninhabitable.

Tax officials receive bonuses and commissions for taxes collected and proceeds of seized assets. While they lined their pockets, Tai Ji Men has fought illegal tax bills for 25 long, expensive and emotionally and physically exhausting years, refusing to succumb to this abuse of power and the complete breakdown of democratic institutions that are supposed to protect them. The Tai Ji Men tax case reached the highest levels of the various branches of the Constitutional government of Taiwan—all of whom failed miserably to protect the religious freedom and basic human rights of their own citizens.

This is not a simple internal tax dispute. Nor are the issues limited to the borders of Taiwan. The Tai Ji Men case has received the attention of global organizations that advocate for religious freedom and human rights, including the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and the International Religious Freedom Summit, among others. With the return of their sacred properties to Tai Ji Men, the government of Taiwan can demonstrate that it does indeed respect the Rule of Law and basic principles of justice, and right a wrong that should never had occurred in the first place. 

I love Taiwan. I have vacationed there and lectured to both undergraduate and law school classes at National Taiwan University. I have dined with corporate executives and made presentations to committees of its national legislature. I have met with senior officials of its other branches of government and have enjoyed the company of its common citizens. The Taiwanese are an educated, welcoming, proud, and patriotic people. Which makes the conduct of the enablers of this vendetta against Tai Ji Men all the more inexcusable.