YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Chinese Dissident Charged in Attack

Spiritual leader Zhang Hongbao is accused of beating his maid. He faces deportation.

May 06, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

The leader of one of China's largest spiritual groups, who was granted asylum in the United States two years ago, is facing charges that he allegedly beat and kidnapped his housekeeper at his tony Pasadena home, authorities said Monday.

Zhang Hongbao, who is believed to have 30 million followers worldwide, is facing five felony counts. If convicted, he faces deportation back to China, where, say experts in Chinese affairs, he could face a labor camp or execution.

Zhang, 49, founded Zhong Gong in 1987, a practice similar to the Falun Gong that promotes medical and philosophical ideas through breathing exercises known as qigong. The Chinese government began a crackdown on the groups in the 1990s, viewing them as a challenge to its authoritarian rule.

Police arrested Zhang on March 15 at his residence on Park Vista Drive in the Pasadena foothills. He is accused of severely beating his maid, Nan Fang He, a 49-year-old Chinese immigrant. According to the police report, Zhang repeatedly dragged her by her hair, slapped her and pounded her head against a wooden chair frame.

Zhang is due in Pasadena Superior Court on May 15, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Zhang is free on bail, which was suggested to be $300,000, according to court documents.

Zhang's attorney, Mark Geragos, said the charges are unfounded, and Geragos accused the maid of pressing the charges to seek financial rewards. Geragos declined to say what Zhang does for a living and where his income came from.

"Anyone who knows Master Zhang knows this is incomprehensible," Geragos said.

According to Chinese authorities, Zhang escaped from his homeland in 1994, moving through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. They say he is wanted, not for his involvement in Zhong Gong, but for rape, illegal exit, terrorist activities and murder.

Zhang landed in Guam in 2000, where he was detained for 13 months by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, losing an initial bid for political asylum under the Clinton administration.

His case came during a sensitive diplomatic period in which a U.S. spy plane was captured by the Communist regime. But Zhang's fortune changed, experts say, with the entrance of the Bush administration and support from Republican Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Zhang was also represented by Los Angeles attorney Robert Shapiro, who gained widespread notoriety defending O.J. Simpson. Shapiro on Monday described him as an intelligent anti-communist passionate about democracy and freedom in China.

Zhang also faces a civil suit filed after the incident by He. Steve Scandura, the maid's attorney, says she fears retribution from Zhang's followers and is now in hiding. While recovering from her injuries, she has received silent, anonymous phone calls at home and He's daughter has been photographed by two unknown women at her place of work, Scandura said.

Scandura said He not only cooked and cleaned, but acted as an assistant to Zhang. Scandura said the March 15 incident was sparked by a dispute over the cost of renovating the garage at the Pasadena home.

Zhang became enraged, Scandura said, when He talked back to him.

According to a restraining order requested by He last Friday against her former employer, Zhang threatened to kill her and her family if she notified police about the March 15 beating. The document also alleges that Zhang had hit He once before and made sexual advances on her 20-year-old daughter.

Some in the overseas Chinese dissident community were not surprised by the news of Zhang's arrest. Shengde Lian, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Free China Movement, came to Zhang's defense in Guam.

Lian lobbied the U.S. government to grant Zhang political asylum after Zhang claimed to members of the exile Chinese community that he had been beaten by U.S. guards. But Lian said he saw Zhang beat a different female assistant involved in Zhong Gong the first day he arrived in the nation's capital after his release.

"We hoped he would change once he was in America, live under the rule of law and learn to respect human beings," Lian said.

David Chu, spokesman for the Connecticut-based China Support Network, which seeks to spread democracy in China, warned that Zhang is innocent until proven guilty.

If Zhang is convicted, however, the U.S. government should not deport Zhang, Chu said, because he would probably meet one of two fates: death at the hands of authorities or a slave labor camp.

Sun Wei De, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Zhang was still being actively sought by his government for "heinous" crimes.

"If what he's being accused of [in California] is true, it proves our point about him," he said.

Los Angeles Times Articles