On May 4th, 2022, at the Press Club Brussels Europe a seminar presented to a Belgian and international audience the case of Tai Ji Men, discriminated against in Taiwan, writes Massimo Introvigne.
The case was also discussed in two sessions of the international conference on freedom of religion or belief organized on May 5–6 at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit of Leuven, with papers by myself, Willy Fautré, the co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, and two representatives of Tai Ji Men.
What is Tai Ji Men? Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the Grand Master (shifu) of Tai Ji Men, has inherited a tradition of esoteric Daoism. He established Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy in 1966 to teach esoteric Qi Gong, martial arts, and self-cultivation.
There are now 15 such academies, including two in California. Dr. Hong also promoted high profile initiatives for world peace, and brought traditional Tai Ji Men culture abroad through over three thousand cultural events and martial arts performances in more than 100 countries.
In 2014, Tai Ji Men was part of a coalition that launched the Movement of An Era of Conscience, and eventually led the United Nations to proclaim April 5 as the International Day of Conscience.
Dr. Hong devotes a large part of his time to teach students and interviews each of them before they are accepted as dizi (disciples). There is a traditional Tai Ji Men ceremony after the acceptance. Dizi show their gratitude to Dr. Hong by giving gifts in the form of the so-called “red envelopes” as is traditional in Chinese Qi Gong schools. Such gifts are also given during important Chinese festivals, or irregularly. Everybody understands this is part of a personal relation dizi have with their shifu.
What is the Tai Ji Men case? Those who study the repression of new religious movements in Chinese history are familiar with the expression xie jiao, used to designate banned religious movements in Mainland China. It is usually translated as “evil cults,” but this translation of a term used since the 7th century CE and literally meaning “heterodox teachings” is somewhat anachronistic.
Coming from Imperial China, the category of xie jiao was used in Republican China (established since 1911) to designate groups regarded as not supportive of the governmental reforms, particularly in the health and education fields. It continued to be used in Taiwan during the Martial Law period. Martial law ended in 1987, and religious liberty was officially proclaimed. However, what legal scholars call “transitional justice,” i.e., an acknowledgement and correction of human rights violations in a pre-democratic past, proved to be a bumpy road.
The latest great repression of movements labeled as xie jiao, which were in fact persecuted for not supporting the political party that won the first direct election of a Taiwanese president, happened in 1996. Notwithstanding its caution in not taking political sides, Tai Ji Men was also involved in the crackdown, and Dr Hong was arrested together with his wife and two dizi.
Eventually, the case against Dr. Hong and his co-defendants failed spectacularly. On July 13, 2007, the criminal division of the Supreme Court of Taiwan pronounced the final acquittal of Tai Ji Men defendants, declaring them innocent of all charges. The Court also declared there was no tax evasion. National compensation for the wrongful detention was given to Dr. Hong and his co-defendants.
This should have been the end of the Tai Ji Men case. However, some National Taxation Bureau (NTB) bureaucrats decided to ignore the court decision and go on with their unjustified tax evasion action. They also knew that they could pocket significant bonuses by issuing tax bills against a large movement such as Tai Ji Men.
Accordingly, even after the Supreme Court had concluded that Dr. Hong had committed no crimes, and there was no tax evasion, they tried to maintain their tax bills for the years 1991 to 1996, claiming that the money Dr. Hong had received in these years in the “red envelopes” should not be considered as non-taxable gifts but as tuition fees for a so-called “cram school,” i.e., a school where pupils receive crash courses, normally in preparation for exams.
Different authorities intervened in the controversy, including the Ministry of Education (which has authority on cram schools) and courts of law. All declared that in the Tai Ji Men case there was no cram school and no tax evasion. For the second time, the Tai Ji Men case should have ended there, but this was not to be.
In 2019, the NTB, in accordance with the ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court and the Taipei High Administrative Court, agreed that tax bills for the years 1991 and 1993 to 1996 should be corrected to zero, but maintained the tax bill for 1992, including penalties. Logically, this did not make sense, as the content of the red envelopes in 1992 was not different from the other years. The NTB relied on a technicality, i.e., that for the year 1992, and only for that year, a decision by the Supreme Administrative Court rendered in 2006 had become final.
It is a general principle of law that even final decisions can and should be revised or not enforced when a new fact intervenes, in this case the verdict of the criminal section of the Supreme Court of 2007 that found Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men not guilty of tax evasion. Nonetheless, the NTB refused to cancel the tax bill for 1992.
Why the massive Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan and internationally?
In August 2020, land belonging to Dr. Hong that had been seized against the 1992 tax bill was auctioned by the National Enforcement Agency, then confiscated after two auctions were not successful.
This property was important for Tai Ji Men, which planned to build a center for self-cultivation there. Hence the protests, which also targeted what Tai Ji Men and others perceived as the unfairness of the Taiwanese tax system in general and the immoral system of bonuses. These protests have received significant international support and are an embarrassment for the government of Taiwan. Only by solving the case and giving back to Tai Ji Men its sacred land will the administration of President Tai Ing-Wen be able to put an end to a controversy that continues tainting its international image.