The Curious Rise of Scientology in Taiwan

A church facing setbacks elsewhere finds an unlikely foothold.

The Atlantic/July 29, 2016

At the end of 2013, in the low-slung, industrial Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, a bevy of officials came to attend the ribbon cutting of a huge former hotel that had undergone a top-to-bottom, multi-million-dollar renovation. Speaking before the throngs of celebrants who blocked the flow of traffic, Taiwan’s deputy director of the Ministry of the Interior praised the group that funded the renovation and presented them, for the 10th year straight, with the national “Excellent Religious Group” award.

“For years you have dedicated your time and lives to anti-drug work and human- rights dissemination,” said the director, echoing praise offered by the mayor’s office and the president’s national-policy adviser.

The name on the award was the same as the one newly blazoned in steel letters across the building’s façade, the same as the one that flanked the building in a gigantic vertical banner, a name that elsewhere might draw stares but in Taiwan has drawn government praise: Scientology.

Scientology around the world is in broad retreat, but to be in Taiwan you would never know that. In an area slightly smaller than the combined size of Delaware and Maryland, with a total population of 23.4 million—roughly the same as that of the New York metropolitan area—Taiwan has 15 Scientology missions and churches. Per capita, it’s one of the most Scientology-friendly countries on earth. The island serves as a major source of donations and new members for the church, which has capitalized on L. Ron Hubbard’s early suggestions that he was a new Buddha. In a sign of Taiwan’s importance to the church, Scientology chief David Miscavige also attended the 2013 Kaohsiung reopening of the hotel as a Scientology megachurch.

Elsewhere, including its homeland the United States, Scientology has been facing setbacks. Some of Scientology’s highest-ranking members have left the church in recent years and denounced its leaders for alleged abuses. Defectors have also leaked documents, exposing the church’s secrets to unwanted scrutiny. Celebrity members have left its ranks, including the King of Queens actress Leah Remini and  the Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis.

And though the church claims millions of members, census figures say its numbers in the U.S. may have fallen to 25,000 or lower in 2008 from a peak of 55,000 in 2001. High-ranking defectors say that missions around the world have closed or consolidated and showcase properties stand empty.

By contrast, Scientology’s biggest church in Taiwan—the 108,000 square-foot ex-hotel in Kaohsiung—is bustling. When I visited one evening last fall, I saw dozens of people coming and going in the course of a few hours. Taiwanese believers are also fundraising to build the island’s second lavish megachurch in Taipei.

Asked about this growth, the Church of Scientology said: “It is true that the Church of Scientology is expanding in Taiwan, just as we are expanding everywhere.”

And Scientology’s reach in Taiwan extends beyond the churches themselves. According to Scientology’s disaster-relief and community-service arm, the group sent Taiwanese volunteers last year to participate in earthquake-recovery efforts in Nepal, where members performed “contact assists,” a form of touch-healing Scientologists believe relieves pain by hand. (Last summer, Scientologists trained dozens of Kaohsiung police officers in these “assist” techniques.) A Scientology affiliate runs anti-drug programs in elementary schools across the country, and claims to have already educated some 300,000 young Taiwanese.  

According to documents described as leaks from Scientology's main database of internal statistics and published by Mike Rinder, a high-ranking defector, Taiwanese Scientology missions were three of the top 10 cumulative fundraisers for the church in 2014. In June 2015, according to data published on the Scientology-watching blog Sec-Check, the Taipei mission tied for first among Scientology churches around the world for weekly “stats” reflecting sales of books, hours of counseling, and new recruits. (Asked about these materials, a Scientology spokesperson described them as “stolen documents.” The church said Rinder was “dismissed from his position and expelled because of his dishonesty.”)

Scientology has found a lifeline in Taiwan, which the church describes as a gateway to China, a target it calls “the abiding dream of all Scientologists.”  

How did this happen?

Sitting at a café across the street from a downtown Taipei temple last fall, Verjanso Yang shook his head ruefully as he remembered the near decade he spent in the church. Once one of Taiwan’s highest-ranking Scientologists, he now wants nothing to do with the group.

When Yang first encountered Scientology, he was a young man seeking spiritual answers. His mother had taught him how to read fortunes from star charts and the Chinese characters of a person’s name, and new ideas intrigued him. Like many Taiwanese, he’d grown up with beliefs about reincarnation.

In 2003, while watching TV, he saw a popular guru hypnotize a Taiwanese entertainer. The guru claimed to take the entertainer into a past life, where he discovered that he had been a pig.

Yang was fascinated by the show. “Taiwanese are very curious about their future and past life,” he said. He, too, wanted to find out what his past lives contained. The guru’s theories didn’t provide him with the answers he sought, but they led him to Scientology, which claims that people must free themselves from deep-seated traumas in past lives.

Taiwan’s attitude toward religion differs notably from that of the People’s Republic of China. While roughly 60 years of official atheism have repressed the mainland’s traditional religions, in Taiwan they have prospered. For generations, Buddhist, Taoist, and folk beliefs have mingled on the island. In the 1980s, Taiwan’s government lifted Chiang Kai-Shek’s martial law, under which the country had been governed since 1949. Religious restrictions were relaxed, and new sects multiplied. Taiwan “became a different country” virtually overnight, recalled Chuen-Rong Yeh, an anthropologist of religion at Taiwan National University, in an interview. Moonies, New Age movements, and mystical martial-arts groups began proliferating. As the island modernized, religious movements blending indigenous practices with contemporary styles of worship attracted many Taiwanese, said Richard Madsen, an expert on Taiwanese religions at the University of California, San Diego.

For some, this seeking led to movements like Falun Gong, which merges physical practices with spiritual beliefs, or to kung fu organizations that claim to possess secret techniques for gaining supernatural powers. Taiwan is also home to groups like the Quan Yin Method, founded by a woman whose followers regard her as the reincarnation of Buddha and Jesus Christ; the True Buddha School, founded by a man who claims he fights demons and travels the world while asleep; and the Chen Tao cult, the members of which believe that flying saucers have rescued humans from five extinctions.

In this environment, Scientology, too, began to take hold. “Everything here is free, maybe even more than in the U.S.,” Yeh said. “Because of this, these kinds of occult groups enjoy their freedom in Taiwan.”

The first Scientology mission appeared in Taiwan in the late 1980s; by the mid-2000s, that single mission had blossomed into at least a dozen, with several in Taipei alone. The government recognized Scientology as a religion in 2003.

Yang’s first encounter with Scientology was the year following, when he visited a mission located in a chic Taipei shopping district. After registering him, the staff sold him the first book in the Scientology sequence, Dianetics, a 1950 work that purports to contain the Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s scientific discoveries proving that the key to mental health lies in emptying the mind of traumatic memories. In auditing, a kind of therapy that uses a lie detector and repetitive questioning to take users into a quasi-hypnotic state of memory and imagination, Yang found it “easy to go to the past life,” he recalled.

Like many believers, Yang turned to working long hours at the church as a way to pay for the Scientology courses that are required for believers wanting to move forward on their spiritual journeys. He says he worked 10- to 12-hour days for six months in 2004, for which he received two payments of $800. Much of that he paid back into Scientology courses. (The Church of Scientology declined to comment on this and other details of Yang’s account, with a spokesperson writing in an email, “We do not debate anonymous gossip.”)

“Because I hardly got paid, I had financial problems,” Yang said.

After he completed a series of courses, Scientology staff advised him to go to Sydney, Australia, which at the time was one of the few places in the region offering certain high-level training. Those courses, he recalled being told, would allow him to do more specialized auditing and increase his income. He flew to Australia in the fall of 2004. “It's the nature of Taiwanese,” said Yang. “Because Taiwanese are obedient, [Scientologists] use hard-sell techniques.”

He rented an Australian Scientologist’s apartment, sharing two bedrooms with eight other Taiwanese. “It was terrible,” he remembered. “Much cheaper than a normal apartment, but it was illegal. I was on an old mattress, there was no air conditioning, the room had no window.” (The Church of Scientology declined to comment.) Other defectors recalled to me one Taiwanese having to camp out on the 20th-story balcony of a building for months. Dozens of Taiwanese were studying Scientology in the city at the time, and they accounted for a quarter of the Sydney church staff, an Australian ex-Scientologist named Peter Smith told me.

Taiwan serves Scientology as a source of recruits, laborers, and donors. Another Taiwanese Scientology defector, Smith’s wife Anita Hsu, told me recruiters from America and Australia have long targeted Taiwan. Hsu, who attended her first Scientology course in 1993, said she was recruited to go to Sydney in 1999 with promises of rapid spiritual advancement. Despite Taiwan’s modest per capita income of roughly $22,000 a year, many Taiwanese were persuaded to spend $20,000 and up for Scientology courses, not counting rent and travel expenses, according to Hsu’s account. (Scientology declined to comment.) Given the cost, it’s not surprising that the first wave of Taiwanese converts came mostly from the middle to high-income professions: doctors, teachers, lawyers, nurses.

To pay for the courses, defectors told me many Taiwanese sold their furniture and homes, maxed out credit cards, and were coached by church staff to ask relatives for loans. (The Church of Scientology declined to comment.) Taiwan is “very important for churches in Sydney,” said Smith, who worked five years at the Sydney church in the early 2000s. “They made a lot of money there. Lots of kids can come because the culture is they can borrow a lot of money from their families, even if they don't have much money.” (Critics of the church of Scientology, including Hubbard's great grandson, have compared the religion to a “pyramid scheme.”)

When Yang arrived in Sydney, he was surprised to find there were very few Scientology materials in Chinese. (Official Chinese translations of Hubbard’s works weren’t published until 2012.) Armed with rudimentary high-school English, he had to teach himself the language by reading Hubbard’s prose, which abounds with words such as “un-enturbulating” and “full color-visio, tone-sonic, tactile, olfactory, rhythmic, kinesthetic, thermal and organic imagination.”

“It was just studying, reading all day,” Yang said. “It was very painful.” In the end, because of the language barrier, Yang spent four-and-a-half years finishing training that native English-speakers could complete in several months.

The coursework alone, not counting rent, cost $35,000 for those years, he said. That’s 10 times the price of a full year of tuition at National Taiwan University.

In Sydney, Yang’s life revolved entirely around Scientology, he recalled. His friends, his lodging, and his visa all came through connections with the church. As Yang’s English improved he volunteered to help interview or audit fellow Chinese speakers. In 2007, he began dating an Australian Scientologist named Sarah Forster.

There were, however, moments of friction. Yang remembers being sternly punished for lending friends a DVD of The Secret, a New-Age film that advocates positive thinking. Senior church members called him and demanded the DVD, which they snapped in half and threw into the trash. They ordered him to write a confession of wrongdoing and show it to everyone in the church cafeteria to sign. (The Church of Scientology declined to comment.)

When Yang finally finished his training in 2008, he was eager to earn back some of his tuition money. He was also now the first Taiwanese certified to give high-level auditing, which can cost $300 an hour or more, he said. So when a unique opportunity came along, he took it: He flew to mainland China in 2009 to train a Chinese citizen to be “Clear”—an advanced state that Hubbard claimed would raise a person’s IQ, liberate him from colds, and enable him to calculate in seconds equations that average people needed half an hour to do. At this point Yang himself was considered Clear, having finished his training. But his new mission had a catch: Unregulated and foreign-controlled religions like Scientology are forbidden in mainland China. Groups considered cults by the government often face crackdowns.

That hasn’t stopped Scientologists from dreaming, however. China has loomed large in church mythology since Hubbard’s visit to the Great Wall with his mother and father in 1929. At the opening ceremony of the Kaohsiung church, Scientology’s leader David Miscavige said that “ever after [Hubbard] would speak of Scientology as ‘first conceived in the East.’” (Because of this, the church tends not to highlight the passage in Hubbard’s 1929 diary where he reportedly referred to the Chinese by a racial slur.) In later years, Hubbard liked to imply that he was Buddha, writing in his 1956 poem, “Hymn of Asia,” “address me and you address Lord Buddha,” and claiming that the Buddha would reappear in the West with red hair—like Hubbard himself. In Taiwan, church leaders frequently stress the Hubbard-Buddha connection to recruit members. In one of the Taipei missions I visited, staff showed a video in which a statue of Hubbard is briefly juxtaposed with a statue of Buddha; in the Kaohsiung church, the gym had a large mural of Buddhist symbols.

For six months, Yang lived in Hangzhou, a city in eastern China where he spent six hours a day auditing a businessman (whom Yang declined to identify) up the levels of Scientology. Compared to his cramped, restricted life in Sydney, Yang enjoyed relative freedom in Hangzhou, but kept a low profile and told authorities he had come to China as a student. He felt that the businessman studied mostly to please his wife, who had discovered Scientology on a trip to Europe; yet a year later he saw a video the businessman had made to promote his own spiritual group—a thinly veiled rip-off of the Scientology he had learned.

In 2010, Yang returned to Taiwan. Forster, by now his fiancée, joined him. In Taipei he started his own independent auditing and counseling practice, specializing in taking people from lower levels up to “Clear.” Around the same time, a blog he started that was popular among Taiwanese Scientologists began to draw criticism from the church’s intelligence organization and law-enforcement unit, the Office of Special Affairs, because Yang expressed opinions that were either unorthodox or seemed to be derived from Scientology, which fiercely protects its copyright.

Meanwhile, Scientology was embarking on a “global expansion,” and fundraising in Taiwan intensified. High-level church figures from Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Florida, known as the Flag Service Organization or simply Flag, came to recruit Taiwanese. The International Association of Scientologists held fundraisers with lofty goals, and came to Taiwan multiple times a year, Yang recalled. Missions in Taipei proudly display plaques and posters from America that commend them for “stellar sales.”

Yang remained active in the church—he was paying 10 percent of his salary to Scientology—but he and Forster began avoiding events because the doors would be blocked until they made a donation. But it didn’t stop there. Yang and Forster were asked repeatedly to buy new, $3,000 versions of “The Basics,” a collection of 18 books and 280 digitally enhanced Hubbard lectures. They saw friends donate houses, overcharge credit cards, and lose jobs for the church. (The Church of Scientology declined to comment.)

“Many people were rich and now are poor,” said Yang.

When fellow Scientologists in Taipei poached two of his auditing clients, Yang began to distance himself from the church, quietly downplaying “Scientology” in his marketing materials. He continued to write his blog. Yet when church intelligence officers objected to him writing posts about Buddhism and romantic topics, he balked at the restrictions. “The church said, ‘Don’t write that, you should promote Scientology, otherwise people won’t pay for courses,’” he said.

In 2012, the Office of Special Affairs emailed a list of articles and demanded he remove them. In one, he pointed out that the idea of karma did not originate in Scientology, but came from Buddhism. “They said, ‘You can’t talk about that. It doesn't belong to you. It belongs to us.’” (The Church of Scientology declined to comment.)

He took down the posts. Two years later, the blog was mysteriously hacked in a denial-of-service attack and has since remained down.

Taiwanese who want to understand outside perspectives on Scientology face a basic obstacle: Most critical articles on the church, and most forums where ex-Scientologists offer advice to people leaving the church, are in English.

Taiwan’s own media, while boisterously independent compared to mainland China’s, have shied from negative coverage of the church. While gossip-friendly newspapers have reported briefly on matters related to the divorce of celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise, I could find few that had written on the group’s expansion on Taiwan’s shores. One of the few Chinese-language blogs that publishes critical items on Scientology is run by Anita Hsu, the Taiwanese defector.

Yang and Forster left the Church of Scientology in 2012. In the midst of their disputes with the church over Yang’s blog and his independent practice, a high-ranking church friend came to visit. She shared with them a letter written by Debbie Cook, a Scientologist beloved in the church who used to head Flag. The letter criticized the church’s ceaseless focus on fundraising. Yang’s friend also told them that Cook had testified in the church’s lawsuit against her to being locked in a building for seven weeks and experiencing physical abuse. This was the first time he had heard such reports; he and Forster had been forbidden from reading anything online that the church deemed to be anti-Scientology.

A month later, full of anxiety and excitement, the couple sent out their own letter: “Dear Friends. … I am the first Taiwanese Senior Minister that was ever made. I was the first Taiwanese who co-audited to Clear. I was the first person to go to China and make the first Clear in China. And now I am the first highly trained Class V Taiwanese Auditor to publicly depart.”

The next day, Yang lost 400 friends on Facebook—almost everyone he knew. A friend who had attended his wedding called contacts of Yang and Forster in Taiwan and Australia and told them to “disconnect,” or permanently cut off contact with them. “We were prepared” to lose friends, Forster said, “but we didn’t know they’d be totally gone.”

Asked now what he would tell Scientologists in Taiwan, Yang shook his head in disgust. “I don’t care. They won’t listen, you can’t deprogram them. If they come to me, I will help, but otherwise, what can you do?”

As subtitled versions of the documentary Going Clear appear online, Scientology may gradually lose momentum in Taiwan, but Yang is not optimistic. In Taiwan, at least, the group’s affiliated organization—the anti-drug program Narconon, the Citizens Commission for Human Rights (an anti-psychiatry organization which claims to expose the field as “an industry of death”), and the Youth for Human Rights program, which promotes Hubbard writings alongside the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights—continue to reach students, receive positive media coverage, and hold events with the government’s support, including meetings with the former president.

“I did feel I was brainwashed,” Yang said, “Now that I am out I wonder, what was I thinking at that time? How come I was so controlled, people telling me what to do and not to do? What to read and not to read?”

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