Zhang Hongbao is the Chinese leader of the world’s second largest qigong (“spiritual exercise”) sect, Zhong Gong. He resides in comfortable exile in Pasadena, thanks to a vigorous campaign for asylum in the United States that gained the support of Trent Lott and the late Jesse Helms, and attracted worldwide attention.
In addition to his status as a spiritual leader, Zhang styles himself president of the “China Shadow Government”, claiming the power to rally tens of millions within China to his cause.
A Chinese democracy activist, John Kosumi of the China Support Network, once wrote hopefully, “What Wei Jingsheng [the signature dissident and rallying point for the democracy movement in the 1980s] had once been to Deng Xiaoping, Zhang Hongbao had become to Jiang Zemin.”
Then, in 2003, Zhang was indicted on five felony counts related to a beating he allegedly inflicted on his housekeeper. He insisted the charges were a facet of an effort by the Chinese government to destroy him and his movement.
Indeed, Zhang faced the genuine peril of deportation from the United States and return to China for almost certain incarceration and possible execution when he went on trial in Pasadena in 2005.
However, Zhang’s peril raised little furor in Chinese dissident circles, from the US government, or from conservative confront-China circles that would normally welcome a chance to raise America’s consciousness as to the importance of confronting tyranny and supporting freedom of religious expression in China.
The sordidness of the alleged offense, Zhang’s diminished credibility as a principled dissident, and the marginalization and division of the Chinese democracy movement in America determined that the matter would be handled as an ordinary criminal case resolved discretely at the local intersection of justice, money, and high-powered legal representation.
In contrast to the extensive worldwide coverage Zhang’s asylum case in 2000 attracted, the assault case was only covered in depth by local papers such as the Pasadena Star-News and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, which devoted several articles to the case. The Los Angeles Times and the AP covered it sporadically, reporting the resolution of the case on March 1 by a plea-bargain.
Zhang Hongbao pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, paid a nominal fine, and went free, receiving credit for one day already served in LA county jail.
According to the LA Times (Jason Felch, “Chinese Dissident Avoids Deportation in Alleged Beating”, Los Angeles Times print edition, March 1, 2006), Zhang’s attorney, Mark Garagos, stated that Zhang was “ecstatic”.
This must be considered hyperbole, since Zhang was unable to gain acquittal and is now teed-up for a civil suit pursued by the housekeeper, Nan Fang He.
In fact, she and her lawyers may be pleased that Zhang and at least some of his wealth are safely in the United States and vulnerable to a civil judgment, instead of enmeshed in a prolonged appeal and deportation fight.
The case offers a window on the world of a Chinese qigong sect that seem to be bare-knuckle business and personality cult rolled into one, with a leader whose public posture is a mishmash of religiosity, dissidence, alleged illegality, and political grandstanding.
The Chinese democracy movement appears in the story as little more than collateral damage, and a footnote to the powerful forces roiling China’s economically vibrant but politically unevolved society.
Zhang gained notoriety and wealth in the early 1990s during China’s qigong craze as the master of the Zhong Gong sect (its full name is Zhonghua Yansheng Yizhi Gong or “Chinese Gong for Health Improving and Intelligence Enhancing).
In an atmosphere of heightened anxiety and enthusiasm amid the profound social dislocation of the post-Mao era, interest in qigong flourished among young and old in China’s cities.
The qigong craze was fanned by the emergence of qigong masters promising physical and mental well-being to those who followed their prescriptions for meditation and exercise. Admiring and credulous profiles of the masters, who claimed unique achievements and even special powers, appeared in the state-controlled media.
A transitory government willingness to tolerate new and more independent forms of popular expression, combined with the partial de-regulation of the economy, led to the emergence of movements that achieved a high level of organization and national reach.
Zhang Hongbao’s Zhong Gong’s movement grew quickly in this environment, both as a sect and an aggressive national business enterprise known as Tianhua (Kylin) Culture, that sold qigong-related products.
At the height of its influence, Zhong Gong claimed 34 million followers, 120,000 employees, 30 life cultivation bases, and 100,000 “branches”, and a reach within China only exceeded by Fa Lun Gong.
Zhong Gong differentiated itself from the larger and better-known Fa Lun Gong by promising its adherents that they could tap external as well as internal energies, thereby acquiring “special abilities” (te-yi) such as psychokinesis and ESP.
Zhang Hongbao’s charismatic leadership was apparently a large factor in the sect’s success. In the words of one qigong practitioner:
In 1988 another very important qigong master, Mr. Zhang Hongbao, added to the practice of qigong some more excitement. He attracted a large group of followers who called him their "zong shi" ("great master"). … Basing his project in Beijing, he organized many classes for qigong learning and charged high tuition. His method was obviously efficient in eliciting ESP and greatly inspired the learner's interest; thus his version of qigong was quickly propagated. Because of the adaptation of the clan system, a personality cult centering around Zhang Hongbao prevailed. In all areas of China, people were seen wearing Zhang Hongbao badges, just as people had worn Mao Zedong badges during the Cultural Revolution. It was said that Zhang Hongbao once held a news conference in the People's Hall.
In 1990 I met practitioners who attended Zhang Hongbao Qigong's classes. I found out how much they worshipped him. Before the ceremony of acknowledging the master, some even practiced repeatedly how to kowtow and asked onlookers to see if their postures were sincere enough. Learners of Zhang Hongbao Qigong liked to wear Zhang Hongbao badges, for they believed this was a way to connect themselves to their master's energy, which could increase their gong and bless and protect them. I have met many of them in different places. Their god was their master, and their belief was qigong.
When the Chinese government cracked down on Fa Lun Gong, Zhong Gong, and other qi gong sects in 1999, Zhang fled China, resurfacing in Guam, where he was detained and began a struggle for political asylum.
He was able to enlist the support of various Chinese democracy movement organizations, and also retain the legal services of Robert Shapiro, of OJ Simpson fame.
Reflecting the positive image of Zhang and his activities in the United States, Shapiro talked about his successful efforts to gain political asylum for Zhang on Larry King in June 2001 :
SHAPIRO: I represented one of the largest leaders of Chinese dissident group in the People's Republic of China. His name is Zhang Hongbao. And he has a group called the Zhong Gong, very similar to the Falun Gong, which is an exercise meditation group. He had one other element to it. He had an economic element, which dealt with health and well being.And the People's Republic of China became very, very concerned that these groups would eventually have political power. So they outlawed in 1999 the Falun Gong as an evil cult.And they were doing the same thing with the Zhong Gong. And he was threatened with all types of political persecution, including death. So he left China.And he went around the world, and he ended up in Guam, entering illegally with a fake passport. And he was detained by the United States government. And he sought political asylum.For 13 months, he was in custody when I came into the case. Because his political asylum application -- which should have been granted, because clearly, he was...
KING: He was under threat.
SHAPIRO: ... he was under threat -- the judge said, "I'm going to grant this." And then, the People's Republic of China sent letters to the United States government, saying that he is wanted for 20 rape cases. The judge, obviously, became very concerned, and asked that the State Department and the Library of Congress look into this. Both then...
SHAPIRO: ... and came back with an analysis which said, probably the charges that have been filed on their face are fraudulent. They are certainly very suspicious. And this is a common tactic that is done by the Chinese Communists for political dissidents.In any event, he is denied asylum before I come into the case. But he's granted wrongful withholding; that is, he can't be sent back to China.Both sides appeal. And he asks for release on bond. He's not going to go anywhere, because they're going to kill him if he goes back to China; that's the last place he would go. And for some reason, the United States government, at that time, would not acquiesce to the release.
KING: So what did you do?
SHAPIRO: I came into the case, and I went to Washington. And I started talking to political leaders. And eventually, we were able to get the support of then Majority Leader Trent Lott, who sent the letter to Attorney General Ashcroft.
SHAPIRO: And as a result, two days after the United States plane was released from China, Zhang Hongbao came back to Washington that night, so...
KING: He's a free citizen now?
SHAPIRO: He's here. Both sides are still appealing. But it's very clear to me that he will remain here. He's anti-Communist, pro- American. And quite frankly, it's one of the best things I've ever done, as you're aware.
KING: You're proud of this.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, very proud of it.
The opinion Mr. Shapiro refers to—a brisk dismissal of Chinese jurisprudence and the legal and evidentiary basis for the charges against Zhang--was prepared by The Directorate of Legal Research of the Law Library of Congress. It can be viewed on a portion of the Zhong Gong website entitled Zhang Hongbao in Blast Furnace, which collects documents and reports concerning his fight for asylum.
On Mr. Shapiro’s webpage, he lists his efforts on behalf of Zhang (referred to as “Mr. Hongbao”) as one of his signature accomplishments.
In testimony before Congress in 2005, China scholar Patricia Thornton described the mobilization of Chinese democracy activists on Zhang Hongbao’s behalf:
For example, when Zhong Gong leader Zhang Hongbao began a hunger strike to press for his release from detention in Guam while awaiting transfer to the US, several overseas Chinese dissident organizations-- including the Free China Movement, the Chinese Democracy Party and the Joint Conference of Chinese Overseas Democracy Movement-- rallied to his cause, organizing a press conference to draw attention to his plight. After winning his bid for political asylum in the US, Zhang returned the favor by joining forces with the banned Chinese Democracy Freedom Party, and by establishing an organization designed to push for the release of political dissidents from mainland Chinese jails. The virtual links between Zhong Gong and other overseas organizations, most notably Liu Siqing's Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, were quite close in the past.
Unsubstantiated scuttlebutt asserted that Zhang, in contrast to the avowedly apolitical Fa Lun Gong, supplied financial support for Chinese dissident organizations in America.
Zhang apparently managed to come to America with sufficient wherewithal not only to pay for Robert Shapiro’s legal services, but to acquire a large house in Pasadena and live comfortably there, despite the fact that he was presumably cut off from his followers, businesses, and income within China.
But in 2003, Zhang Hongbao’s quiet life in America unraveled .
First, on March 15, 2003 came the alleged assault on Nan Fang He—reportedly in response to a flareup concerning her shortcomings in supervising some contractors on the grounds of Zhang’s residence.
Then came Zhang’s arrest:
According to the police report, the housekeeper told officers that after bashing her head against a chair, Zhang told her: "If you tell the police, I will kill your whole family. If you tell your daughter, I will have her killed first."
After the incident, Zhang, along with two of his students, locked He in a room, according to the police report. Eventually, the housekeeper escaped, running to the street where she wandered bloody and dazed for hours before flagging down a taxi, the report said.
Shortly thereafter, Mdme. Yan Qingxin, Zhang's onetime domestic partner and erstwhile number 2 in the Zhong Gong movement, filed a civil suit claiming Zhang not only beat her but breached an agreement promising her half of the profits from Zhong Gong's operations during their 12-year relationship.
Damages demanded: $23 million.
Zhang obtained legal representation from Mark Geragos, a Los Angeles celebrity lawyer famous for his participation in high-profile criminal cases (Michel Jackson, Gary Condit, Winona Ryder, Scott Peterson). Geragos’ brother Matt is handling Zhang Hongbao’s defense against the civil suits.
The affair evolved into a blizzard of allegations, counter-allegations, and countersuits. Matters became so heated that the court granted restraining orders requiring Zhang to stay away from Nan Fang He, her family, and even her attorney for ten years.
On Internet message boards, Zhang’s partisans reported in the January 11, 2004 Pasadena Star-News :
One complaint alleges Zhang's housekeeper "maliciously punctured' the forehead of one of the guru's followers with a thorn, spoiling her chances for marriage.
Zhang, 50, of Pasadena, is the exiled founder of Zhong Gong, a Chinese spiritual wellness movement that once was reported to have as many as 38 million followers.
He was arrested in March for allegedly beating and falsely imprisoning his housekeeper, Nan Fang He, while his disciple Lisha Wu allegedly offered no assistance.
Zhang is awaiting trial on felony charges related to the case. If he is convicted, he could be deported to China where he faces criminal charges that could result in his execution, according to experts on the Chinese pro-democracy movement.
Wu's complaint alleges Nan Fang He punctured Wu's forehead while moving a plant at Zhang's Pasadena residence in September 2002. The facial injury "influence beauty directly,' Wu's complaint says. "I haven't married. It's easy to imagine the psychological pressure I endured.'
Zhang’s counterattack escalated with his announcement of the formation of the China Shadow Government in the summer of 2004, which he explicitly linked to his legal travails.
As an adherent of Zhong Gong explained in a post whose Chinese title evokes the rebellious heroes of the famous Chinese martial arts novel On the Water Margin (“Zhang has been forced to go up Liangshan”):
To this point, Zhang and Zhonggong are in great crisis, the situation is extremely severe and critical. The leader Zhang’s fame is greatly damaged, so is Zhonggong’s. Zhang is facing the trial in USA, so is Zhonggong, even including the International Zhonggong General Assembly. Once any kind of conviction was sentenced to Zhang and Zhonggong, Zhang won’t be able to work on the global development of Zhonggong and spreading Chinese culture, Zhonggong followers in the whole world and Zhonggong overseas organizations will not be able to survive and develop.
What’s worse, Chinese Communist government will get an excuse by way of taking advantage of US legal conviction to practice a new wave of persecution in mainland China where thousands of Zhonggong followers have been trying to seek justice for Zhang and Zhonggong. Or, CCP government will make use of US legal convictions to replace Zhang with Yan Qingxin, so as to take Zhonggong under its complete control. The motivation behind the facts that Yan Qingxin and her accomplices are so bold, so crazy in trying to push Zhang into a court is, therefore, very clear.
In such a situation, can Zhang survive? Can Zhang find a way out?
All these incidents are telling people one truth: so long as the tyrannical CCP government exists, Zhonggong can never develop, not even survive. Zhang is finally forced to openly rebel.
Aug. 8, 2003, Zhang officially announced to go public again in L.A., US. He takes it as his personal responsibility that China deserves a democratic social system and announced the official start of China Shadow Government. In his public announcement, he accepted people’s unanimous election result and became the President of China Shadow Government.
It is quite understandable to regard the formation of the China Shadow Government as primarily an attempt to burnish Zhang Hongbao’s dissident credentials and acquire domestic American political leverage in the face of his legal difficulties and the danger of deportation to China that they threatened.
Zhang Hongbao and his followers have sought to rebut the inference that the China Shadow Government was formed in response to the criminal and civil suits against Zhang, pointing out that it was “registered” eight months prior to the announcement in August 2003. They also make the contradictory assertion that Zhang’s legal problems are politically inspired and the Shadow Government is an inevitable act of self-defense.
It is difficult to find evidence of the China Shadow Government’s activities beyond a series of communiqués and reports posted on the Chinese-language section of the Zhong Gong website www.Tianhuaculture.com and translated into English on www.World-Chinese.com.
Primarily, the pronouncements of the Shadow Government seem to paint a dark picture of vainglory and personal grandiosity verging on megalomania.
A statement on the Zhong Gong website asserts:
“CCP leaders have always viewed Zhang Hong Bao as the biggest political rival.
(1) Deng Xiao Ping said Zhang Hong Bao is a remarkable character; entrusted Jiang Zemin at his deathbed to remember Zhang as the biggest challenger of CCP ruling.”
Other postings declare that the Chinese government was prepared to enter into a $4 billion trade agreement with the U.S. to get Zhang Hongbao returned to China.
The statements of Zhang’s followers indicate that he is regarded not merely as a dissident but as a charismatic leader and man of destiny:
When a great man is entrusted with a great mission, he often has to undergo bodily hardships, physical sufferings, and mental trials. The vicissitudes in the past years have sublimated Mr. Zhang Hongbao’s true feelings for the Chinese people and his sense of mission as a fighter to promote democracy in China. In his noiseless, intense struggles against both open and hidden enemies, in both open battles and skirmishes, Mr. Zhang has acquired his unique character of sang-froid and composure that enables him to handle numerous exigencies. …
This is truly an epoch-making event. History has picked Mr. Zhang Hongbao for a great mission. The Chinese people and all the people around the globe who care about democracy in China are looking forward to a magnificent answer sheet that Mr. Zhang Hongbao will submit to history!
Within and beyond the émigré community, Zhang’s recent writings have not done much to reinforce a picture of him as a realistic, reliable, or persuasive political force.
A sampling from the Shadow Government’s September 22, 2005 report CCP’s Post-Nuclear Super Weapons and Its Geostrategic Goal provides a taste.
The documents predict a war of conquest by China against the United States timed for a triumphal inauguration of Chinese hegemony at the 2008 Olympic Games.
Should the United States will be conquered before the Olympics, Jiang Zemin will be able to turn the Olympics into the gathering of all powers of the world, of which he will be the head, and realize his dream of “great leader in the great country”.
The post-war management of this large-scale modern war will require at least one (1) to one and one-half (1-½) years. By this reckoning, the war will start a year before Olympics in 2008, that is to say, it should start at the change from 2006 to 2007 (this war will not be postponed unless there is supreme strategy). The war shouldn’t last more than 70 days, leaving a little over one year for post-war management, to get ready for the Olympic Games.
Zhang goes on to describe three classes of superweapons he believes the Chinese are pursuing in order to destroy the United States per this timetable.
The first is a space-based weapon designed to disrupt electrical power.
The second is the power to induce powerful earthquakes and tsunamis, which he speculates was tested in the catastrophic Indian tsunami of December 26, 2004, pointing out, “The time was the commemoration day of Chinese Communist Party’s chief, Mao Zedong’s birthday.” He goes on to declare, “The Indian Ocean tsunami is telling the world that a deadly weapon on much higher scale has been born and has succeeded in its drill!”
In the third area, Zhang Hongbao returns to his area of expertise: qigong and the paranormal.
His remarks are worth quoting at length, not because of their strategic or political character, but because they illuminate a pattern of thought—traditional qigong—that has deeper roots and a wider and more dedicated circle of adherents in China than the democracy movement.
C. Supernatural ability will definitely be used as lethal weapons for world domination. …
For example: it is proved in Chinese almost thirties years supernatural abilities research that the application of supernatural abilities were not confined by space and time. The effect of doing within ten meters is the same as doing one hundred thousand meters far away. Therefore, supernatural ability persons can cut people’s hair thirty meters away, if the distance is three hundred thousand meters away, can the hair be cut? If using invisible scissors to distantly cut the hair, can he distantly cut the enemy head’s throat?
Take another example; if using “essence fire” to distantly burn other’s hair, can he remotely burn the eyes of enemy head or of sophisticated weapon operator?
Take an extra example; if using “invisible scissors” to remotely cut an apple, can he remotely cut the enemy leader’s head who refused to surrender?
Take a further example, if he can transport at his please numerous ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign coins and golden fishes to the appointed places and person’s body, can he transport chemical weapons to enemy’s commanding office or enemy’s senate or representatives house and directionally put these chemical weapons to the body of enemy head or relative persons?
If releasing energy to change the water into ice, can he remotely freeze person’s heart, blood or brains?
If using “astonishing essence fire from five elements” to burn the testing instrument, can he burn enemies’ computer operating system?
These inferences make people absolutely terrified but they are not most fantastic tales. Because there is people who plan to use these supernatural abilities in military affairs to contend the world domination. The public testing already proved the energy level of these supernatural abilities. Why not applied them in military affairs horizontally?
It’s easy to snigger at the idea of sinister qigong X-Men confounding Communist China’s foes with remote haircuts, frozen brains, and showers of goldfish.
One can also imagine that statements such as these, in the tradition of an esoteric and autocratic cult, have struck a fatal blow to Zhang’s credibility as the leader of a pro-democracy dissident movement.
A stripping-away of Zhang’s political support in the dissident community has resulted, with his close ally, the China Support Network, distancing itself from Zhang personally and the Shadow Government itself.
However, the Chinese version of Zhang’s article, with its pictures and fluent, confident prose, recapitulates key events of the qigong craze that filled many Chinese with excitement and wonder, and brings home the extensive appeal--and official patronage--that qigong and belief in the paranormal enjoyed in China in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Qigong beliefs, typified by Fa Lun Gong but also by Zhong Gong, were prevalent among the educated urbanites and, most disturbingly for the Chinese Communist Party, among many Party apparatchiks.
Qigong masters were brought to Beijing for successful demonstration of their powers before military and scientific experts, usually under the auspices of a Party leader who had a personal interest in the matter.
The Chinese Communist Party, which claims a monopoly on legitimate organized public expression, came to view the reach, organization, and fervor of the qigong sects with deep alarm once the initial fascination with this new popular movement had worn off.
The result was the 1999 crackdown that curtailed Fa Lun Gong and sent Zhang Hongbao into exile.
Fa Lun Gong has openly eschewed émigré political activism beyond seeking support from religious and human rights group and foreign governments to secure freedom of religious expression and the personal safety of its practitioners within China.
Zhong Gong has taken an overtly political stance, with decidedly mixed results.
It remains to be seen whether the qigong movements will serve as an effective adjunct to pro-democracy dissent, despite their superficial resemblances to the millenarian cults, overseas networks, and secret societies that contributed to the overthrow of China’s last imperial dynasty—the Qing--by progressive forces in 1911.
In some ways the qigong movement looks less than a repudiation of Communism than a redirection of its totalitarian impulses. Master teacher replaces Great Helmsman; qigong teachings push aside Marx, Lenin, and Mao; and the sect takes the place of the party.
Instead of abandoning the idea of one-party rule and replacing it with democracy, confused and threatened Chinese elites have turned to a revived nativist cultural and political identity that is not subservient to the West, and does not threaten the autocratic institutions that still govern China.
A biographical sketch of Zhang Hongbao by a follower offers an interesting perspective on the future master’s formative years, spent toiling as a forcibly rusticated youth on a state farm “in China’s ice-bound northern land” near Russia’s Siberian border:
[Zhang] became a legendary figure in that region because he was able to recite The Communist Manifesto and Dialectic Materialism and Historical Materialism, which is a text of hundreds of thousands of words. In the state-owned farm-reclamation systems of Helongjiang Province, he was widely known for his ability to “promulgate the original works of Marxism-Leninism without having to consult the texts.” With his unique critical perspective, however, he soon discovered the fatal loopholes in Marx/Lenin’s doctrines and embarked on his transition from a blind worshiper of Marxism/Leninism towards a critic of Marxist theory.
Zhang’s repudiation of Marxism did not lead him to democracy.
Instead it plunged him into the world of a millionaire qigong master—a world of shadows that outsiders seek to penetrate at their peril.
There does not appear to be a natural fit, either between Zhong Gong and the democracy movement, or between a chauvinistic, esoteric, and authoritarian sect and the American support for religious freedom and open societies meant to challenge the Chinese Communist regime.
In any case, the situation surrounding the Zhang Hongbao case illustrates the difficulties that arise when the aspirations of a democratic movement and the exigencies of a nativist religious sect collide.
The date for Nan Fang He’s civil suit has not been set.