SHANGHAI, July 30 -- A request for political asylum in the United States by the leader of one of China's largest spiritual movements has put Washington in the difficult position of harboring a possible criminal or delivering to persecution a man hunted for his beliefs.
After trying to keep the case quiet for months, the United States delayed a decision on the request by Zhang Hongbao, the founder of a meditative discipline popularly known as Zhong Gong, at a court hearing in Guam on Friday.
Granting him asylum would amount to the United States telling China that it does not believe the country's criminal charges against him and reinforce China's perception that Washington acts as an agent for domestic groups that Beijing believes are intent on eroding the power of the Communist Party.
The case comes during a widespread crackdown on spiritual groups in China that began with the banning of the larger Falun Gong movement a year ago. Like Falun Gong, Zhong Gong is based on qi gong, traditional Chinese breathing and meditation exercises that seek to channel the vital energy of body and the universe to various ends.
Last year, the United States declined China's request for help in returning Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, who now lives in New York. The United States said that Mr. Li was a permanent resident and that it regarded China's charges against him as politically motivated.
But Mr. Zhang's case is more nettlesome because he arrived in Guam in February without a visa and, if he is to stay, the United States must play an active role in keeping him on American soil.
And China's claims that Mr. Zhang is wanted for criminal activity have a more complex history than the charges against Mr. Li, which were related primarily to his role in organizing a protest against the Beijing government.
By the mid-1990's, rumors of a dark side to Zhong Gong began to circulate. A close disciple defected from the group and wrote a scathing exposé alleging that Mr. Zhang was a fraud and had illicit sex with followers.
Those rumors were amplified by self-appointed "cult buster," Sima Nan, who has made a career of exposing fraudulent claims by qi gong masters. He alleges that Mr. Zhang is guilty of rape and may even be responsible for the murder of some former followers.
Chinese officials have repeated the rape allegation to United States officials, though they have not presented any evidence or documentation of formal charges.
Mr. Zhang disappeared from public view in 1995 as criticism of his group grew. It operated a nationwide network of schools and healing centers based on his particular brand of qi gong before China outlawed it earlier this year.
While his followers insisted for years that he had simply retired from the world to seek further enlightenment, the group's Web site (www.zgzg.net) now says the police have been trying to arrest him since he disappeared.
The United States has no extradition treaty with China, but last month the two countries signed a mutual legal assistance pact that was intended to provide a framework for the return of criminals by either side.
The United States has asked China for the return of two men wanted in the slaying of five men in a gambling den in Boston's Chinatown nearly 10 years ago. China, in turn, has asked the United States for help in finding Mr. Zhang, saying he is wanted on criminal charges.
Mr. Zhang's request for asylum now complicates any proposed law enforcement cooperation, which in any case has long been plagued by a lack of trust on both sides.
Earlier this month, United States officials said they had not informed China of Mr. Zhang's whereabouts, hoping to keep the case quiet until the Boston extradition request had been resolved.
But on Friday, an immigration court judge in Guam said at a hearing for Mr. Zhang that China had formally requested that the United States return the spiritual leader. As a result, the judge delayed a decision on his asylum request.
Another Zhong Gong member was granted political asylum in Guam on Friday, said Frank Lu, a human rights advocate in Hong Kong.
Mr. Zhang was born in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin in 1954. He spent 10 years working on a state farm before studying metallurgy and working at a succession of northeastern gold mines. He later went to study in Beijing, where he learned qi gong in his spare time. He started Zhong Gong, his own school of qi gong, in 1987.
The group, whose full name translates as the China Life Preservation and Intellect Improvement Discipline, was one of dozens of schools started by self-styled masters during the period of loose social controls that led to the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989.
After the violent suppression of the democracy movement by military force, millions of people flocked to the qi gong movement for spiritual solace, a sort of mass recoil from the perils of political engagement and the soulless materialism then sweeping the country.
During the early 1990's, Zhong Gong became the most popular of the various schools, but as controversy gathered around Mr. Zhang and his group, the rival Falun Gong group gained in popularity, eventually superseding Zhong Gong as the largest movement of its kind. In the book that Falun Gong followers regard as their bible, its founder, Mr. Li, makes veiled criticisms of Mr. Zhang, calling him a "sham qi gong master."
China's growing unease with the spreading qi gong movement eventually forced Mr. Li to leave the country in 1998. And a mass demonstration by Falun Gong followers at the central government compound in Beijing last year triggered a crackdown on it and other groups.
Falun Gong, Zhong Gong and a handful of other qi gong schools have since been outlawed and hundreds of their senior members arrested. Before the crackdown, Zhong Gong claimed 38 million followers, though that number, as with Falun Gong's claim of 100 million adherents, is most certainly grossly inflated.
But despite its widely broadcast propaganda campaign against Falun Gong, China has moved quietly in its ban of Zhong Gong, charging that the group has misguided people and closing dozens of Zhong Gong schools around the country.
The movement's hospital near Qingcheng Shan, a mountain in Sichuan Province sacred to Taoists, has been shut down for practicing unlicensed medicine. Only last year it was in full operation, with dozens of patients.
There, one young doctor in a white lab coat demonstrated Zhong Gong's method of treatment to a visiting reporter by waving two fingers ray-gun-like at the head of an 8-year-old girl with a large brain tumor that had penetrated her scalp, leaving her head a misshapen mass of scabs and sores.
The doctors asserted that the girl had regained the ability to walk thanks to their treatment, and several people at the hospital said they had been cured of serious illness by Zhong Gong.
Many others said Zhong Gong had given them paranormal powers, including the ability to go without food for months at a time. One wild-eyed woman said she had anything but an occasional apple for 80 days.
About 200 people were studying Zhong Gong at a school at the site, spending hours sitting in the lotus position beneath dim 40-watt bulbs in cavernous chambers that were dug deep in the mountain for weapons storage during the days when Mao worried about an American invasion.
Much of the hospital and school were like a shrine to Mr. Zhang, who was depicted in paintings with an improbably high pompadour and a German shepherd by his side. Even Mr. Zhang's old Russian car, the tires flat, sat unmoved from where he had last parked it.
All that now appears to have disappeared. A woman answering the hospital's telephone today said, "Nobody's here," and hung up.
Practitioners of Falun Dafa, the combination of exercise and philosophy that the Chinese government forbids its citizens to practice, will be in town today teaching their craft.
The free demonstration, which is from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Central Library's La Retama Room, is intended to promote the exercise and pass on its benefits, said Hongyi Pan, a San Antonio practitioner who organized the event. Mayor Loyd Neal also proclaimed today Falun Dafa Day.
"It's so great, so peaceful and relaxing," said Pan, who learned the practice from a family member in China. "The system opens the channels in the body and makes the energy flow and keep the whole body balanced."
Falun Dafa - commonly referred to as Falun Gong - is a system of slow-moving exercises and moral teaching founded in 1992 that practitioners claim has attracted more than 100 million followers worldwide. The movement has also brought contempt from the Chinese government, which branded the practice as an evil sect and outlawed it last summer. The Chinese reportedly have arrested, and even killed, some followers.
Pan said Falun Gong is a peaceful exercise that enhances followers' physical and spiritual well being while teaching truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. Based on the traditional Chinese Qigong practice, it consists of five positions, or exercises, blended with Taoist- and Buddhist-based ideas.
Pan said his wife's chronic headaches disappeared after she began practicing five years ago. About a year later, he began travelling to other South Texas cities teaching the craft. He's been here several times as well as Austin, San Marcos and New Braunfels, he said.
"A lot of American people saw us and came and learned and they feel it's very good," he said.
Pan said Falun Gong is easy to learn and he encourages everyone to attend the demonstration.
"It's very simple. You go there and learn the exercise and follow the teachings," he said. "You will get better and better through this system. It's simple, but really powerful."
Milena Worsham, co-owner of Lotus Cup Lounge and Coffee Garden, said that anyone could learn the exercises, which aren't physically exerting. Friends recently introduced her to the practice, she said. "It's very beautiful and graceful," said Worsham, who plans on attending the demonstration. "Part of the beauty of it is learning the poses and positions."
Some sect members hail a 37-year-old Hongkong woman as the new master, saying the master has left the body of Li Hongzhi for a younger one
HONGKONG -- One year after Beijing banned Falungong as ""an evil cult'', the spiritual movement outside the mainland appears to be splitting into factions.
A number of overseas followers are now supporting Hongkong-based Peng Shanshan as the sect's new master, replacing Li Hongzhi, who lives in New York.
"We have only one great universal law and one master.
"But the master can accommodate in different physical bodies,'' Ms Tao Hua Lian, a Chinese-Australian disciple of Ms Peng, told the Hongkong iMail on Friday.
"At the early stage, the master has shown up in (the physical body of) Li Hongzhi. Now Master Peng Shanshan is born,'' said Ms Tao, adding that Ms Peng declined to be interviewed.
In the near future, perhaps later this month, the giant Buddha statue at Lantau would bring about a series of changes to the world, including having all the detained and jailed Falungong devotees on the mainland freed, she said, quoting Ms Peng.
Ms Peng, 37, a Beijing native who began to practise Falungong in June 1997, migrated to Hongkong more than 10 years ago.
According to Ms Tao, if a follower was able to recognise Ms Peng as the new master, it would mean he or she had ""passed the graduation examination'' in Falungong.
Ms Tao said that the transformation had already been predicted in Mr Li's master piece, Zhuan Falun (To Rotate The Wheel of Law).
According to Ms Tao, the master would leave the physical body when it reached the age of 50.
She said that on May 11 this year, Mr Li's 50th birthday, the master found a new physical body in Ms Peng. Ms Tao denied the split was the result of plotting by mainland secret agents who wanted to sabotage the sect from within.
A spokesman for the Hongkong Association of Falun Dafa, Mr Kan Hung Cheung, said Ms Peng had ceased to be a member of the group in May.
Mr Kan said that she might be under some external influence when taking part in the extreme activities that contradicted the principles of the Falun Dafa, the Hongkong iMail reported.
BEIJING (AP) - After spending months in hiding, a founder of an outlawed Chinese meditation-exercise sect has resurfaced in Guam, where China is blocking his efforts to get political asylum, a human rights group reported Saturday.
Despite a nationwide manhunt, Zhang Hongbao eluded Chinese police and in February reached Guam, a U.S. territory 3,700 miles west of Hawaii, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said.
Zhang founded the Zhong Gong sect in 1987, and millions practiced its exercises, which are similar to the traditional Chinese health practice known as qigong, the respected rights center said.
Authorities began cracking down on Zhang's group shortly after a ban was imposed in July on a similar sect, Falun Gong. China's communist leadership views the groups as a threat to its monopoly on power.
Zhang thought Guam immigration authorities would approve his political asylum status on July 21, but his case was delayed when the Chinese Embassy in the United States requested Zhang's extradition, the center said.
In a formal letter sent to Guam officials, China said Zhang should be returned because he left the country illegally and is a suspect in a criminal case, the center said. The letter did not provide further details, it said.
Zhang's case is now being handled by immigration officials in Hawaii, who are expected to make a decision next week, the group said.
Hawaii immigration authorities could not be reached for comment because their office was closed for the weekend. Officials in China were also unavailable.
The rights group said if Zhang is sent back to China, he could face the death sentence.
Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi has been living in New York and is unable to return to China, where almost daily commentaries in the state-run media call his group an evil, dangerous sect.
Like Falun Gong followers, Zhong Gong members refer to their founder as ``master'' and themselves as ``disciples.'' They say they use Zhong Gong to open energy channels in their bodies, promoting health and vitality. They also say Zhang's teachings promote moral living.
Last summer, Belinda Peng Shan-shan was running a stall at a book fair at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, selling Zhuan Falun, the book of teachings by Falun Gong Master Li Hongzhi. Less than a year later, she claims to be the master herself, and that Mr Li has completed his mission as a spiritual leader.
Her claims have caused a split within the local Falun Gong spiritual movement, which practices qi gong and combines elements of Buddhism and Taoism, while the mainland's persecution of practitioners continues. Ms Peng, who ran her own trading company and is in her 30s, has emerged as the leader of a splinter faction. Wendy Fang Wengqing, the six-months-pregnant woman from San Francisco who has held hunger strikes after trying several times to come to Hong Kong without a visa, also belongs to the faction - which is only about 30-strong - as do the three mainland overstayers who were engaged in a 14-hour standoff with immigration officers last Friday while being holed up in a Happy Valley flat. They threatened to jump from their flat while trying to avoid arrest.
Mr Li has been adopting a low profile for almost a year. The last media report of him appearing in public is dated last July, when he gave interviews in New York where he has lived since leaving China in 1998. His Falun Gong followers claim to have seen him in Chicago as recently as last month, and his Web site (www.falundafa.org) includes many articles claiming to have been published in the past few weeks, including a statement on July 22 calling for governments worldwide to act on his group's suppression in the mainland.
Mr Li drew world attention to his group last year when 10,000 Falun Gong members protested outside the Chinese leaders' Zhongnanhai residence, causing a crackdown across the mainland that has led to hundreds of arrests and alleged deaths in detention. While Falun Gong followers claim Mr Li simply teaches meditation and exercises, others say he claims to be descended from the Buddha and teaches harmful medical treatments that have led to followers' deaths.
Now Ms Peng's followers claim that her new status will be proven when the Big Buddha statue on Lantau Island - which the group calls the Temple of Heaven Buddha Statue - "manifests" itself in the near future, meaning some supernatural phenomena will occur. An "Open Letter to the People of the World" posted on a Web site set up by Ms Peng's followers (www.falundafa.com.hk) says the imminent manifestation will be the greatest moment in the history of the universe.
Enjoying a cult status, albeit only within a tiny faction, Ms Peng has also adopted a low profile recently. There are pictures posted on the faction's Web site of her making a pilgrimage to the Buddha statue on Lantau with a group of mostly women followers. Some of them are kneeling down paying their respects to her. But her current whereabouts are hidden from all but a few of her followers. And where she lives or how she supports herself is also a mystery as those followers refused to divulge any information, citing concern over her privacy.
Ms Peng has delegated the task of selling Mr Li's books this year to people such as Wong Chuili, an immigrant from Shanghai and a staunch supporter of hers. "As a master, she has other more important matters to deal with," says 33-year-old Ms Wong, a former private nurse. She says she is among the enlightened few who have seen the manifestation of Ms Peng as the true master, one ready to take the place of Mr Li.
"We only realised it on May 11 [Buddha's birthday], the day we were having a grand parade at Victoria Park. That night the revelation came that she was the true master. It's hard to describe what happened but we knew by then that Belinda had reached a high moral state."
Since then the split between the Falun Gong members has widened. Ms Peng and her followers did not show up for a meditation session held by about 200 followers outside Beijing's Liaison Office in Happy Valley last week on the first anniversary of the mainland's official ban on the movement. Nor do they participate in the twice-weekly study sessions open to all practitioners at a residential flat in Mongkok.
Their number may be small but they have caused much resentment within the mainstream group, the Hong Kong Association of Falun Dafa. The association has raised doubts about the motives of the new faction. Some claim it has been infiltrated by Chinese secret agents. The association has also lambasted the splinter group for damaging the reputation of the Falun Gong movement. It has sought to distance itself from the splinter group by issuing statements opposing their activities.
Association representative Kan Hung-cheung says: "Many people know little about Falun Gong, and the radical moves taken by the faction members and their claim about the manifestation of the Buddha could cause people to think we are a cult."
Another follower, Tony Chan Wing-kwong, says: "We don't kneel down before Master Li. The faction members are controlled by hallucinations and are acting irrationally."
The faction is not worried that the split could undermine public support for the international movement. Mary Qian, a mainlander who has lived in California for 20 years, is one of 20 disciples from overseas who have converged on the SAR waiting for the manifestation. "It is the truth which matters more, not how many supporters there are."
Joseph Kaung Tai-wai, a theology lecturer at Chinese University, says it is possible that the Falun Gong movement will degenerate into a cult. "It is a young, undeveloped movement and therefore has much room for internal splits. Different members could have different interpretations of what they read, or what their leader Master Li has said. Hong Kong is a free society after all; anyone who has practised for a few weeks or months can always branch out on their own." He agrees that claims about supernatural phenomena are among the hallmarks of a cult.
The mainstream followers are very concerned about radical actions taken by Ms Peng's followers, such as Wendy Fang's hunger strikes. Some are angry that the way they behave contradicts the moral ideals of "ren" (forbearance) cherished by Falun Gong practitioners, along with "zhen" and "shan" (truthfulness and benevolence).
These principles were strongly emphasised by Ms Peng when she spoke to the Post last year in reaction to Beijing's crackdown on mainland practitioners. Emphasising the peaceful nature of the group, she compared it with such activities as direct sales - people merely became aware of it through word of mouth.
"We are not a political group, and we have no links with any pro-democracy movement," said an eloquent Ms Peng at the time. "We just think the Fa [law and principles] has answers for what you have been searching for in life. After learning about it, you become peaceful when faced with difficult situations, and spared from stress or pressure."
But some members of the mainstream faction now claim that her staunch defence of Mr Li's teachings last year caused her to go astray. Kan Hung-cheung says: "Some people who have staunchly defended our movement have ego-inflation. They think they have done so much that they deserve to be called a master."
Adding to the bitter rivalry within the once united, peaceful group, he insists that Mr Li is still in control. "His teachings are about the improvement of the mind and self, not establishing a personal cult."
Ms Peng's chances of becoming a future leader are uncertain, but with links with mainland practitioners, she is spreading her ideas far and wide through the Internet. A poem posted on her group's Web site under her name suggests she is the "Lord of Buddhas". Perhaps to help establish better rapport with overseas and mainland followers, she has changed the way her name appears on the English Web site, from a spelling which followed the Cantonese pronunciation, Pang San-san, to one which follows the Putonghua pronunciation.
Ms Peng's loyal followers maintain that she and Mr Li originate from one unit as human manifestations of the ruler of the universe. They claim Mr Li's time as a master is over as he has completed his mission of spreading the Fa over the past eight years, and reached the age of 50 - on the Buddha's birthday on May 11. One devotee says it is implied in Mr Li's own writings that he would step down once he reached 50. The group's belief is unshaken by the presence of new articles said to be written by Mr Li which have been posted on the main Falun Gong Web site. They dismiss them as fakes.
And they remain optimistic that Ms Peng's status as his replacement will be revealed to all when the manifestation of the Buddha occurs. "It will come very shortly," said Ms Peng's follower, Ms Qian. "Already there have been signs that a manifestation is not far off. Three followers last week saw images of Buddhas on both sides and above the Temple of Buddha, as well as small dragons and wheels in the sky."
The pregnant Falun Gong follower who staged a hunger strike after being refused entry into the SAR three weeks ago is facing deportation again after failing in her third attempt to enter Hong Kong yesterday.
Wendy Fang Wengqing, 30, who is about six months' pregnant, was refused entry after arriving at Chek Lap Kok from San Francisco at about 6am.
Immigration officials said Ms Fang did not have a visa to enter the SAR and would be deported to the United States. But Ms Fang, a software engineer from San Francisco and a mainland passport holder, told friends that deporting her would leave her "nowhere to go".
Another Falun Gong follower, Mary Qian, said Ms Fang did not have a re-entry permit necessary for her return to San Francisco because US immigration authorities had rejected her application to return. Neither could Ms Fang return to the mainland as she had been rejected twice in May by the central Government.
Speaking from the airport's restricted area, Ms Fang - a member of a splinter faction of the local Falun Gong branch - said she was determined to stay this time to witness the "miracles" of the Big Buddha on Lantau Island.
"I'll insist this time unless they use force like last time, when they got many people to tie me up. I'll come back even if they send me back," she said.
Ms Fang said she also wanted to visit Hong Kong to support the overstaying Falun Gong followers who were involved in a 14-hour stand-off with immigration officers on Friday.
Ms Fang said seven followers who flew from Japan to Hong Kong did not dare to apply for an extension of their expired visas after learning she had been refused entry.
Ms Fang first arrived in Hong Kong on June 28 and embarked on a 40-hour hunger strike after being refused transit rights to Shanghai, leading to what was thought to be the first High Court order for force-feeding.
Ms Fang, who voluntarily flew back to the US on July 8, again tried to enter Hong Kong on July 10, but was sent to Taipei four hours after arriving at Chek Lap Kok airport.
Three mainland Falun Gong overstayers who had threatened to jump out of a Happy Valley flat to escape arrest on Friday were detained by the Immigration Department when they reported to the officials on Monday.
The department also confirmed that the trio and two other Falun Gong practitioners, who were arrested in the same building last Friday, would be deported as their requests for leave to remain were rejected.
''Overstaying is an offence under the Immigration Ordinance. Overstayers are liable to be removed in accordance with the Ordinance and established policy,'' a department spokesman said.
Meanwhile, another sect member Wendy Fang Wengqing, 30, who is six months pregnant, remained in Chek Lap Kok airport last night after she was refused entry on Sunday night.
Another Falun Gong member, Mary Qian Zhizheng, alleged Ms Fang had been tied up and her mouth was taped by immigration officers when they tried to send her to a plane on Sunday night.
The Immigration Department refused to comment on Ms Qian's accusation.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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