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Stakes High for Accused Dissident

Zhang Hongbao, who won asylum two years go, is charged in assault. Deportation could turn it into a capital case.

May 19, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

The first time exiled spiritual leader Zhang Hongbao faced deportation back to China and the threat of execution, a band of Washington insiders came to his rescue and engineered his asylum in the United States.

Two years later, much the same is at stake for Zhang, who was charged in March with five felony counts in the alleged beating of his housekeeper in Pasadena.

But this time, few people are rushing to his defense, and Zhang, who was largely portrayed in the media as a staunch anti-communist, now emerges as a more complex character.

He has been called quietly charismatic and is believed to have attracted more than 30 million people to a quasi-religious sect that practices ancient Chinese breathing exercises designed to promote spiritual and physical well-being.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Chinese dissident -- An article in Monday's California section about Chinese spiritual leader Zhang Hongbao incorrectly stated that a U.S. military spy plane was captured by China during the Clinton administration. In fact, the plane was captured during the first months of the Bush administration.

But Zhang, 49, is also wanted in China on charges of murder and rape. Former associates now allege that he has a penchant for beating his employees. They also paint a portrait of a man who loves luxury, who is fascinated by power and who fears being abducted by Chinese agents.

No matter the view of Zhang, the importance of the charges against him in Pasadena are clear. A conviction could mean deportation, and Pasadena Superior Court Judge Terry Smerling on Tuesday called Zhang's situation the equivalent of a capital case.

Zhang, charged with crimes such as assault with a deadly weapon and kidnapping, is due back at Pasadena Superior Court on July 22 to schedule a preliminary hearing.

Zhang is accused of slapping and hitting his housekeeper, 49-year-old Nan Fang He, and pounding her against a wooden chair during a dispute March 15 over a renovation project at his Pasadena home. She told police she was held against her will in a bedroom before escaping.

He, who worked for Zhang for two years, has won a restraining order against him. In court papers, she accuses him of making sexual advances toward her 20-year-old daughter.

Zhang, who is free on $100,000 bail and agreed to answer written questions submitted to his attorney, said the local charges are part of a Communist Chinese conspiracy.

He denied the beatings and said he hopes to continue promoting the group called Zhong Gong. He also said that he has contributed money to Chinese dissidents in America, but that he has kept it quiet for fear of being ostentatious.

"His belief is the Chinese government wanted to get rid of him because he was a wildly popular and charismatic figure," said Mark Geragos, Zhang's lawyer. Geragos, who represented Gary Condit and Winona Ryder and now defends Scott Peterson, contends that He fabricated the story of the beating to win a lucrative settlement from Zhang.

Zhang's rise in China was nothing if not improbable. Born in the northeastern city of Harbin, he spent 10 years on a state farm before working in the gold-mining industry. He studied metallurgy in Beijing, where he also developed his exercise techniques and the philosophies that followed.

In 1987, he founded Zhong Gong, which an awkward English translation renders as "China Life Cultivation and Wisdom Enhancement Skill."

Zhang says he ran schools in every province of China -- a total of 3,000 such institutions -- and made his fortune opening spas and selling bottled mountain water, incense, prayer cushions, books and tapes. Hundreds of people attended his lectures, where he spoke on relationships, good citizenship and how to master the breathing exercises central to Zhong Gong.

At one lecture in 1988, witnessed by an Asia scholar who wrote about it in the Los Angeles Times Magazine four years later, Zhang finished his talk by promising to unleash the power in every individual.

He played an audiotape and whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Blaring from the speakers were stomach-churning animal growls, laughter and hissing. People began to convulse and roll in the aisles. Some screamed.

"It sent chills down my spine," said Marlowe Hood, the scholar.

The 1980s were a prosperous time for Zhong Gong and other Taoist-influenced practices, known as qigong, to improve spirit and mind. At a time when China tried to promote its own culture over that of the West, qigong appeared sophisticated and truly Chinese.

But by the 1990s, the government had begun cracking down on qigong groups, vilifying them in the state-run media as cults.

Most notable was the persecution of Falun Gong, a qigong group that was less centrally organized than Zhong Gong and that was based more on moral improvement than on breathing exercises.

Authorities shut down Zhong Gong schools and Zhang fled China in 1994, hiding in Indochina and Australia before arriving in Guam on a fake passport in 2000. He was held under the Clinton administration, which was careful not to anger China further after an American spy plane was captured in 2001.

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