“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” So famously wrote Charles Dickens in “A Tale of Two Cities,” and his words apply to our present situation as well.
It is the worst of times when the ghosts of aggression and war rear their ugly heads again. It is the age of foolishness when many believe propaganda aimed at blaming the victim rather than the aggressor. It is the epoch of incredulity when we lose faith that good can ultimately prevail. It is a season of darkness when cities are bombed and children are killed in an unprovoked war. It is a winter of despair when millions of refugees leave everything and come to European Union countries in tears.
But at the same time, it is the best of times when Europe and the world wake up and discover how precious is the fragile achievement of democracy. It is an age of wisdom when in Europe we all understand we have tolerated human rights violations for too long. It is an epoch of belief when we cherish the hope that we will overcome war and tyrants as we were able to overcome a pandemic. A season of light and a spring of hope will dispel darkness and despair if we, the Europeans, understand that it is our values that will carry the day in the end, and not in Europe only.
Taiwan is also at the center of global concerns, and they affect Europe as we saw when we all had to stand in solidarity with Lithuania after it was sanctioned for its friendship with the Taiwanese. Defending Taiwan is not about economic ties, as important as they may be, it is about values. Either Europe is a community founded on a shared heritage of defending democracy and human rights or there is no Europe.
SOME PROBLEMS OF TAIWAN’S DEMOCRACY
While we defend the right of the Taiwanese to freely choose their government and their model of international relations, as European friends we should also look at what in Taiwan’s democracy is still open to a dangerous criticism by its enemies. As the Bible says in the Book of Proverbs, “A truly good friend will openly correct you.”
As the current President of Taiwan has acknowledged, two main problems there are corruption and transitional justice. Although anti-corruption plans have been implemented, Taiwan still ranks comparatively high in global statistics about corruption. Among the most corrupt sectors of Taiwan’s bureaucracy is the National Taxation Bureau (NTB). One of the reasons is that tax bureaucrats receive high bonuses when they enforce tax bills against taxpayers. This creates a powerful incentive to issue high tax bills and quickly enforce them and pocket the bonuses, whether they are right or wrong.
Corruption is a typical problem of societies that transition from authoritarian to post-authoritarian political systems. Old habits die hard, and bureaucrats who were accustomed to be almost omnipotent are not happy to relinquish their power.
This is the problem of “transitional justice.” A true transitional justice implies that when an authoritarian regime is replaced by a democratic one, past violations of human rights are publicly acknowledged, perpetrators are brought to justice, laws are reformed, and victims are indemnified.
The experience of many European countries proves that the transition from an authoritarian to a democratic regime does not happen overnight. In Taiwan, Martial Law was abolished on July 15, 1987. But this did not mean that the next day Taiwan became a full-blown democracy. The party that was in power in 1987 remained in power and controlled the presidency or the Parliament until the first party rotation in 2000. This obviously made transitional justice difficult.
THE TAI JI MEN CASE
Those who have visited Taiwan recently may have noticed massive protests in the streets of Taipei, where thousands call for tax reform and transitional justice in a case concerning a spiritual movement, Tai Ji Men, a “menpai” (similar to a school) of qigong, martial arts, and self-cultivation rooted in esoteric Taoism but open to disciples (dizi) of all faiths, whose Grand Master (Shifu) is Dr. Hong Tao-Tze.
Dr. Hong also promotes high profile initiatives for a culture of conscience and world peace, and brought traditional Tai Ji Men culture abroad through over three thousand cultural events and martial arts performances, many of which were held in Europe. Tai Ji Men’s efforts have been highly praised by international political and spiritual authorities, including different Presidents of Taiwan.
Notwithstanding this praise, Tai Ji Men has been a victim of a campaign of repression that targeted in 1996 several spiritual movements in Taiwan, accused during the post-authoritarian phase of the island’s history of not supporting the candidate who won in that year the first Taiwanese presidential elections. 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.
Dr. Hong was falsely, and ridiculously, accused by a prosecutor, who violated the law and abused his authority, of “religious fraud” and even of “raising goblins,” a practice totally foreign to Tai Ji Men. To this, an accusation of tax evasion was added, with fabricated arguments.
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, including tax evasion. National compensation for the wrongful detention was given to Dr. Hong and his co-defendants who had been detained.
This should have been the end of the Tai Ji Men case. However, some 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.
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 from dizi in the so-called “red envelopes” should not be considered as non-taxable gifts but as taxable tuition fees—even if the highest courts in Taiwan had declared they were not tuition fees.
In 2019, the NTB, in accordance with the rulings 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.
On May 5 and July 23, 2020, the Taipei High Administrative Court wrote twice to the NTB for the Central Area, asking them to treat 1992 as the other years were treated. This, also, was to no avail. In August 2020, land belonging to Dr. Hong that had been seized 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 on what they consider a sacred land. Massive protests and an international campaign supporting Tai Ji Men followed.
The Tai Ji Men case is not about money. Tai Ji Men spent in legal fees only more than it should have paid had it settled with the NTB. It did not settle for a reason of conscience and values. While protests are gaining international momentum, it is time for the European friends of Taiwan to tell the Taiwanese authorities that we admire and support Taiwan but we expect it to solve its human rights, transitional justice, and freedom of religion or belief problems. The Tai Ji Men case would be a good starting point. The time is now, “the worst of times” and “the best of times.”. ■
It is time for the European friends of Taiwan to tell the Taiwanese authorities that we admire and support Taiwan but we expect it to solve its human rights, transitional
justice, and freedom of religion or belief problems. The Tai Ji Men case would be a good starting point. The time is now, “the worst of times” and “the best of times”.