Zhang Hongbao, master of one of China's largest spiritual movements, waited in Guam Tuesday to learn his fate, adamant he could face execution in China if the United States turns down his appeal for asylum.
Zhang, leader of the Zhonggong group, which claims 38 million followers, has been held in the tiny US Pacific territory since fleeing from exile in Asia in February, claiming a cross-border Chinese security net was about to be drawn tight around him.
His asylum request has since been delayed several times, notably after China branded Zhang a criminal and demanded his extradition.
The State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service declined to comment on specifics of his request, but colleagues familiar with Zhang's case say they believe a US judge could finally rule on his request by Friday.
Their desperate hope is that Zhang will be allowed to move to the US mainland like Li Hongzhi, leader of the parallel Falungong sect, which in common with Zhonggong preaches moral virtue through traditional meditation techniques.
"I don't think the American government will bow to Chinese pressure," said Yan Qingxin, who describes herself as the group's deputy leader, in an interview with AFP in Washington.
Analysts say that after crushing the democracy movement, Chinese leaders see spiritual groups like Falungong and Zhonggong, with the potential to mobilise followers en masse, as the most serious threat to their rule.
The Zhonggong sect was easy prey for Beijing's security services, as it boasted a well-organised network of offices and affiliates across the country, and was registered with the authorities.
"Zhonggong has been declared a 'potentially counterrevolutionary' organisation and Chinese authorities have ordered its abolition," said Yan, who arrived in Guam with her leader and was granted asylum in the United States earlier this month.
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China says that in the past year, 600 Zhonggong training center leaders have been detained and 3,000 Zhonggong businesses have been shut down.
Just last month, Wang Xuemei, a Zhonggong leader in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou was sentenced to two years in prison in late July for "disturbing social order."
"They want to destroy us quietly," said Yan, claiming Beijing authorities had acted with stealth to avoid domestic and international news coverage of the group.
The case presents US authorities with a quandary, at a time when they are trying to invigorate fledgling cooperation with Beijing on extraditing suspected criminals.
While some of its officials hope to work with Beijing on crime, the United States is a haven for celebrated Chinese dissidents granted exile after persecution in China, and an outspoken critic of Beijing's human rights record.
Chinese embassy officials in Washington declined to answer calls on Zhang's case on Tuesday, or accusations by his supporters that their demands for his extradition are based on politically motivated charges.
Zhonggong has however published what it says are official documents from regional public security bureaux, levelling a host of accusations, including political subversion and even rape, all of which Zhang denies.
US officials say privately that ordinarily, convictions or outstanding arrest warrants could bar an applicant's asylum request.
In making a decision, an immigration judge must weigh not only the credibility of a candidate, but the credibility of the evidence weighed against him or her.
Should the judge then decide to bar the application, the United States could still send a candidate to a third country, if it believes he or she could face persecution back home.
Zhang left China in 1994 after he became the subject of a vast manhunt by Chinese authorities, followers say. He lived in exile in South and Southeast Asia until he fled to the United States.
He is expected to remain in detention in Guam until his case is heard.
He wrestled with it for months. Finally, he decided he had to go.
So, seven months ago, he gave up his job as a surgeon, left his tearful parents and only son, and said goodbye forever to his life in China. He came to the Bay Area with a nylon shoulder bag, no job and no English.
He did it so that every morning at dawn, he can stand in his friend's spare bedroom, feet slightly apart, eyes shut, breath steady, mind clear and arms moving in the smooth rhythmic motions prescribed by the Falun Dafa sect, popularly known as Falun Gong.
If he tried to do this in China, he could be interrogated, tortured or killed. He didn't even want his name used because just talking about his beliefs in the United States could pose a threat to family and friends back home.
That surgeon represents the latest thorny question facing U.S. immigration officials: what to do with the thousands of Chinese seeking asylum after their government's crackdown on Falun Gong a year ago.
U.S. immigration officials are taking a crash course on the nuances of the sect formed in the early 1990s by a former Chinese grain clerk now living in New York. His teachings promote exercise and mediation to arrive at enlightenment, supernatural powers and salvation.
The trick for U.S. officials is to try to distinguish between a genuine Falun Gong follower who might come to harm in China and an opportunist trying to get an easy green card.
In that process, U.S. immigration officials are adding another sentence to the definition of ``freedom.''
``It is a challenge to figure out who is telling the truth,'' said Bill Strassberger, with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C. ``But we'd rather let in a few people who aren't legitimate Falun Gong followers than send one person back to China who could be persecuted there.''
Immigration officers take special classes, review long applications and interview the applicant for up to three hours. Often, their decisions rest on their gut feelings.
The INS does not separate asylum applications into categories -- such as one for Falun Gong cases and another for political or religious persecution cases -- but agency officials estimate that several hundred Chinese nationals have been granted asylum since their government's ban last year. That is a significant number, because last year, 5,218 applications from Chinese people seeking asylum were filed or reopened. Only 943 were granted for claims including Falun Gong.
The number of Falun Gong asylum applications has steadily risen during the past year, according to the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which also grants asylum.
Falun Gong followers say the group is apolitical and not centrally organized. Its organizers have put the group's total membership at 5 million, mostly in China. An estimated several hundred live in the Bay Area. Many can be spotted in public parks, stretching slowly in unison every morning and evening.
Asylum applications from sect members surged after the Chinese government condemned the group, saying it ``incited and created disturbances, and jeopardized social stability.'' That decree came soon after 10,000 silent people descended on the cloistered Chinese leaders' Beijing compound in April 1999, demanding recognition for their group.
``It is an evil cult,'' said Xiao Zhong Yang, a Chinese government official in San Francisco. ``No responsible government could tolerate this.''
Yang said Falun Gong urges its members to avoid modern medicine and teaches that the human race will soon become extinct and that only the group's founder, Li Hongzhi, can save them.
Some U.S. academics also have branded Falun Gong a cult because of its belief in extraterrestrial life and levitation. But all the INS says cares about is whether practitioners could face persecution in their homeland.
``If a belief is odd to you or me, but results in persecution,'' said Strassberger of the INS, ``that's grounds for asylum.''
In its annual report on human rights, the U.S. State Department in February chided the Chinese government for its treatment of Falun Gong followers. Many were herded into stadiums for interrogation. Some were bound hand and foot with chains and were not given food or water for two days. Others were jolted with cattle prods or forced to march barefoot through deep snow until they renounced their beliefs or died.
``The government has been brutal,'' said Allen Zeng, a software engineer who lives in San Jose and is the Bay Area contact person for Falun Gong.
Zeng said his brother and sister-in-law, both software engineers living in the Bay Area, returned to China this year to urge the government to understand that their group promotes only health and morality. Both were held in detention centers for several weeks.
Bay Area immigration lawyers said Falun Gong adherents need sanctuary in the United States, and urged officials to act quickly. But many cautioned that the U.S. government must also be vigilant about weeding out phony practitioners.
``Word has gotten out that Falun Gong is an easy way to attain lawful status here,'' said Steve Baughman, a partner at Baughman & Wang, a San Francisco firm serving the Chinese community. ``It's a shortcut and a lot of people are tempted to take advantage of it.''
Baughman said he turns away several people every day who want him to use Falun Gong to stay in the United States. Some, he said, admit they aren't Falun Gong practitioners. Others claim they are followers but cannot answer basic questions about the practice.
``We're getting good at smelling rats,'' Baughman said.
Former doctor's tale
The former surgeon, whom Baughman represents, is a case in point of why the Chinese government is alarmed by Falun Gong.
His father was a Communist Party cadre in a large city in a northern China province. He went to medical school and became a prominent doctor. He made a good living, owned a house and a cherished motorcycle. He wasn't religious and even though he had misgivings about the government's violent 1989 suppression of democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square, he wasn't about to voice them. He could live with the restrictive society. He loved his country and never thought about leaving it.
He first learned of Falun Gong in the early 1990s, when friends and neighbors talked about a new form of exercise. He didn't take an immediate interest in it because he thought it was simply a series of superficial exercises. Then, two years ago, his doubts faded.
His transformation began when he hit a woman with his motorbike. Instead of trying to sue him, the woman handed him the Falun Gong book, ``Zhuan Falun.'' Then he met an old friend who he thought had died of a serious illness. Much to his surprise, his friend was robust and energetic, and attributed his improved condition to Falun Gong.
The surgeon decided to read the Falun Gong book. Despite his wife's skepticism, he tried the tai-chi-like exercises. Next, he found himself letting go of his desire for material things and professional advancement. Instead, he felt ``a concern for others'' -- for instance, holding the door for someone or not cutting in line -- as well as an inner peace.
``Before, I lived a good life, but there were a lot of things I wanted, so I had a lot of worries,'' said the surgeon, who is in his mid-40s and has thick, gold-rimmed glasses and neatly combed, short black hair. ``Now, I don't have very much, but my heart feels good. I don't feel stress or pressure or someone watching over me.''
The Chinese government's increasing intolerance for Falun Gong awakened a sense of defiance and individuality that the surgeon said he never knew he had. His faith in Falun Gong, and his anger that the government would try to destroy a harmless spiritual group, gave him the strength to fight back.
``The more they didn't want me to do it, the more I wanted to do it,'' he said, speaking through a translator in his attorney's office.
So, in February, he applied for and received a tourist visa, gave away his home and motorcycle and said goodbye to his distraught elderly parents. With only their carry-on luggage, he and his still-reluctant wife flew to San Francisco.
These days, he misses being a doctor. He misses his parents. He misses having a steady income. But he says his ancestors endured much hardship, so he, too, will survive.
His life, his future, hangs on a letter from the INS that could arrive any time in the next few days, weeks or months. For now, he meditates, stretches and waits.
And every day, he checks the mailbox.
HONG KONG (CNN) -- While the Chinese government extended its crackdown on religion to Protestant churches, the leader of a banned meditation group waited in Guam for a ruling on his request for political asylum in the United States.
Chinese authorities on Wednesday arrested 130 members of the China Fang-cheng Church, one of 14 Christian groups the government has labeled "evil cults" and banned as it has banned the meditation groups Zhong Gong and Falun Gong.
Zhang Hongbao, the 46-year-old founder of Zhong Gong, has been held at a U.S. immigration detention center in Guam since February, when he arrived after fleeing a massive police hunt for him in China.
The Chinese government, claiming Zhang is a criminal who engaged in illicit sex with his followers, wants him back to stand trial. But Zhang, whose group ran a network of schools and healing centers while claiming millions of devotees, denies all the charges.
"The Chinese government is trying to destroy me, not because our group commits any illegal acts, but because we are a political threat," he said, adding that the government "fears our large numbers."
"The government is worried that if we form a political party, it will be thelargest opposition party in China ... because my beliefs are diametrically opposed to Marxism-Leninism."
Zhang founded Zhong Gong in 1987, and saw the group banned last year along with another Buddhist-like meditation sect, the Falun Gong. Falun Gong's leader, Li Hongzhi, has permanent residency in the United States.
Human rights advocates say extraditing Zhang to China would guarantee a death sentence.
"He would most likely be executed because of his enormous political influence," said Frank Lu of the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Hong Kong. "I think it is 100 percent certain he would be executed."
But Zhang's fate poses a dilemma for U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration, which is trying to improve strained relations with Beijing. U.S. immigration authorities have delayed a final decision on Zhang's appeal for asylum.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong rights group reported that Chinese President Jiang Zemin has called for tougher action against the Zhong Gong sect to prevent its emergence as a mass organization outside the Chinese Community Party's control
BEIJING (AP) - Chinese courts have convicted 151 leading members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement since it was banned last year, a Chinese religious official was quoted as saying Friday.
The figure given by Ye Xiaowen, however, did not include as many as 5,000 Falun Gong adherents who human rights groups estimate have been sent to labor camps without trial during the government's 13-month crackdown on the group.
Ye, China's senior official in charge of religious affairs, said 22 of the 151 Falun Gong adherents were sentenced to up to five years imprisonment, the official newspaper China Daily reported. It did not say whether Ye detailed the punishments for the remaining 129 adherents.
Falun Gong organizers have been sentenced to up to 18 years in prison, Chinese official media have previously reported.
The newspaper said those convicted were ``hardcore'' members of the group. Ye said they ``either leaked state secrets, made use of Falun Gong to create social chaos or committed other crimes,'' the China Daily said.
Ye, who spoke Wednesday in Los Angeles, is part of a delegation visiting the United States ahead of the U.N. Millennium World Peace Summit, a gathering of religious leaders in New York Aug. 28-31. The U.N. Millennium Summit of world leaders will follow, Sept. 6-8.
Chinese authorities say Falun Gong is an evil cult that led more than 1,600 practitioners to their deaths. Alarmed by the group's popularity and organization, the Communist Party banned Falun Gong in July 1999.
Founded eight years ago, Falun Gong attracted millions of followers with its blend of slow-motion exercises and ideas drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and the group's leader, Li Hongzhi, a former government grain clerk believed to be living in the United States.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
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