SAIPAN - China wants a controversial spiritual leader back so they can execute him, according to the top American lawyer who will act for him in a court hearing Friday.
Zhang Hongbao, the founder of the Zhonggong spiritual group, has been in jail in the US territory of Guam since January last year after he entered with a false visa.
The Immigration and Naturalisation Service denied his application for political asylum in September but he is seeking the right to stay in the United States pending an appeal.
A US District Court in Hagatna was to hear his application Friday.
Los Angeles attorney Robert Shapiro, acting for Zhang, said he was confident his client would be released from custody.
Shapiro, noted for his involvement in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, has been working on the case for more than three months.
"Hes being unlawfully held based on false and fraudulent charges brought forth by the Peoples Republic of China, simply because theyre going to have him returned to their country for the purpose of execution.
"Its clear in our investigation that these charges were false, and the State Department has verified that these charges are unreasonable. And it is not uncommon for political dissidents to face similar charges to get them back to China.
"This is a case of international significance," Shapiro said.
"It involves human rights, which I am very sensitive to, and its a case where a person who was exercising his own beliefs regarding meditation, regarding exercise, regarding spirit, has been persecuted by the Peoples Republic of China.
Shapiro said Zhang had been jailed for 13 months.
"Im optimistic that well be able to change that; that justice will prevail, and that he will be released immediately on parole."
Zhang, 46, founded the Zhonggong movement, which claims 38 million followers in China, in the early 1990s. The mystical movement is similar to the better known Falungong group.
Both are rooted in traditional Chinese martial arts and philosophy. Their growth in recent years and ability to mobilize large numbers of people have unnerved the communist authorities.
Zhang fled China, reportedly for fear of his life, after the government labelled the group an "evil cult" and began cracking down on its members.
The Chinese government claims that Zhang raped female members of his group, even releasing to the media details surrounding the rape charges by providing statements by rape victims, the victims photographs, arrest warrants and other documents.
Zhang and his assistant Yan Qingxin were caught entering Guams airport in January last year with fake visas. He has been in custody since then.
Shapiro said that if granted freedom, Zhang would be heading to Washington for safety reasons.
"Our desire clearly is that he goes to the (American) mainland for security purposes," Shapiro said. "We believe that the U.S. is the only place in the entire world where he can be absolutely safe."
Shapiro said Zhang was doing well and was very positive about the outcome of the hearing.
"For a man who has gone through what he has, for his spirits to be so high, for him to be so optimistic, for him to believe so much in America and American democracy, make me feel like this is a very important job, and a very important person."
NEW YORK - What do a drummer who played with David Bowie and the B-52s, a senior software engineer at a Wall Street firm and a researcher in biochemistry with a leading New York hospital have in common? Nearly every day, they spend at least an hour practicing Falun Gong, the Chinese self-cultivation exercise they claim improves mental and physical health.
THEY ARE AMONG the thousands of devotees around the United States who have embraced this controversial Eastern practice, one that the Chinese government has denounced as an evil cult and that others question over claims it cures terminal illnesses.
For Sterling Campbell, Scott Chinn and Feng Ching, the rewards of Falun Gong -; also known as Falun Dafa -; are sublime, an almost miraculous change in temperament and sensibility, a shedding of negative attitudes and energy, a feeling of compassion and tolerance.
After I learned these exercises, I dont feel tired, I dont suffer from fatigue, says Feng Ching, a research fellow in biochemistry at Sloane Kettering hospital.
Its so energizing, so purifying. It reduces stress, says Scott Chinn, the software engineer who works on Wall Street. Chinn also is the vice president of the New York Falun Dafa organization, set up to highlight the human rights violations against the movement in China.
I stopped drugs, alcohol, cigarettes. Im in a much better state of mind. Im a much more happy person, much healthier, says Sterling Campbell, the drummer.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
The three have embraced a practice that has spread rapidly from Chinato 40 countries in less than a decade.
It all began, according to the Falun Gong practitioners, with Li Hongzhi, a former grain clerk in Jilin province, who formulated a series of five exercises and introduced them in China in 1992.
Drawing from the deep well of ancient Buddhist practices as well as the meditative exercises known as qi gong, Li published his teaching in a book, Zhuan Falun (Revolving the Law Wheel), now the veritable bible for the movement.
(Falun Gong adherents discourage the use of religious terminology, insisting they are practitioners -; not members -; of a spiritual movement, not a religion.)
In any event, Li -; known as Mr. Li, the Teacher or Master Li -; set out the core teachings in his book and practitioners are encouraged to read it while moving toward the essence of Falun Gong, a life filled with truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.
Falun Gong spread quickly across China, at first with the grudging tolerance of the Chinese government. But when 10,000 practitioners turned up in Zhongnanhai, the Beijing residential area of the Communist Party elite, in April 1999 to peacefully protest the harassment of some adherents, the government took notice.
Falun Gong practitioners do one of the five movements last week in New York.
The result was a ban on the organization, a vigorous propaganda campaign against Li and the imprisonment and the arrest and torture of hundreds of practitioners.
In December, Amnesty International reported that at least 77 Falun Gong followers have died in custody, or shortly after release, in suspicious circumstances since the crackdown began in July 1999, many as a result of torture or force-feeding while they were on a hunger strike.
Chinas response has drawn widespread international reproach, and threatened Beijings ambitions to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2008.
The persecution of Falun Gong members also has strained relations with the United States, which granted residency to Li and refused to extradite him to China to face trial.
A MATTER OF SIZE
Ironically, the crackdown has helped spread word of the practice beyond Chinas borders, although the size of Falun Gong support base remains in doubt.
The movements Web sites and brochures give prominent play to claims that Falun Gong has 100 million practitioners, which would rank it fifth in size among the worlds top religions, below Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism -; and above Sikhism and Judaism.
Scott Chinn, who explained that the 100 million estimate came from a Chinese government sports minister, disputes the categorization among religions, insisting that there is no formal Falun Gong organization.
Chinn also noted that the 100 million figure was reported in U.S. News and World Report. A check through the news weeklys roster of reports reveals a story on Feb. 22, 1999, in which an anonymous official attached to the Chinese sports commission says: Falun Gong and other types of qi gong can save each person 1,000 yuan in annual medical fees. If 100 million people are practicing it, thats 100 billion yuan saved per year in medical fees.
Queried about the murky sourcing for the figure, Chinn acknowledged that he also has been wondering about the estimate, but that as an American its difficult to get through that Chinese barrier.
More recently, the Chinese government claimed that the movements ranks had thinned from about 2 million to around 20,000 practitioners in China.
Whatever its size, Falun Gong has gained a great deal of attention in the West -; and a devoted following.
The practice has spread to more than 100 cities and towns across the United States. In New York alone, dozens of practices are organized throughout the city daily.
FOLLOWING FALUN GONG
On a bone-chilling spring morning in Manhattan, MSNBC.com spent time with followers at three different locations where practitioners ranged from elderly ethnic Chinese gathering in Chinatown to Wall Street types in Battery Park City. Scott Chinn
At each location, Lis voice rang out from small boom boxes guiding the adherents through the five exercises. And practitioners were united in hailing the benefits of the Falun Gong, explaining that the exercises help them become better, healthier people.
I have better relationships, a lot of my anger is dissipating. Im doing unselfish things that I didnt do before, noted drummer Sterling Campbell.
Campbell joined about 60 other practitioners across the street from the Chinese consulate on 42nd Street, where they gather twice a week to protest the Beijing crackdown.
There also was little hesitation in trumpeting claims of the health benefits. Theres many, many, many practitioners who have cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, things like that (which) after they started practicing disappeared, said Chinn.
Kevin Wu, a Beijing native who works with Chinn on Wall Street, noted that his knee injury cleared up after he began practicing. When your mind starts thinking clean thoughts, your body is actually purified, he said.
Feng Ching ascribed the health benefits to superscience. She added, Its above our knowledge. But it works, because I know it works.
GENEVA - Chinese dissidents demonstrated Wednesday in Geneva andLausanne, calling for Beijing to be condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to be refused the right to stage the 2008 Olympic Games.
The protesters, who included some of the best-known dissident leaders now resident in the West, also suggested that China should be kept out of the World Trade Organization, which it had hoped to join this year.
Wei Jingsheng, leader of the exiled Overseas Democracy Movement, told a news conference in Geneva the demonstrators' prime purpose was to support a U.S. resolution on China's rights record in the 53-member Commission.
A similar resolution has been rejected by the Commission every year for the past 10 years.
Wei, whose group also included representatives of Tibetan exiles and the Falun Gong spiritual sect, condemned by Beijing as an "evil cult", said China's human rights performance had deteriorated sharply in recent months.
Another dissenter, Wang Xizhe of the China Democracy Party, told the news conference, near the U.N.'s European headquarters, that many of his party's members had been arrested.
The Commission, made up of U.N. member states on a rotating basis, would violate its own principles if Beijing were not condemned, he declared.
CHINESE WORKERS "WILL SUFFER"
Wei said that if China were admitted to the World Trade Organization after 14 years of negotiation "the people who will suffer the most will be the Chinese workers ... who will lose their jobs."
But the second victim would be the 140-member WTO itself because the Chinese government "will change the rules." China should not be admitted to the body until it instituted political reform and improved its human rights record, he added.
>From Geneva, the dissident leaders traveled to Lausanne where they staged a small protest outside the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee.
"If the Games are held in Beijing, it will hurt the Olympic Games themselves and will help the Chinese Communist Party," Wei told reporters following the demonstration.
Wang said the Games should be held "in a place where human rights are respected, where the political situation is stable and where peace has prevailed."
A banner in English waved by one protester read: "In Beijing the Olympic Games? Man, What a Shame!"
Six of the protesters were allowed into the building, despite a heavy police presence, and were received by IOC Secretary-General Francoise Zweifel and Director of National Cooperation Fekrou Kidane.
Zweifel told reporters that she and her colleague had listened to the dissenters' arguments and had promised to pass them on to outgoing IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch.
WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives condemned China's human rights record on Tuesday, with lawmakers charging that Beijing's refusal to quickly return a U.S. spy plane and its crew showed its intransigence.
The confrontation over China's failure to hand back the plane's 24-member crew "only underscores anew how harsh the policies are by this Beijing dictatorship," said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican.
On a 406-6 vote, the House approved a nonbinding resolution supporting U.S. efforts to sponsor a U.N. resolution faulting Beijing's human rights record at the annual six-week meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, which began in mid-March.
The House resolution condemns China's human rights record, taking aim specifically at the alleged repression of its Tibetan minority and of members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. It urges the United States to take the lead in gaining support for the U.N. resolution in Geneva.
The United States usually sponsors or supports a resolution in Geneva criticizing China over human rights, but the measure typically draws little backing from other countries, and China has escaped even a direct vote on the issue.
Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said it was a coincidence that the measure was being considered by the House during the standoff over a U.S. spy plane that made an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
But he rejected arguments that the resolution should be put off until the confrontation eases.
"It is singularly unacceptable to be intimidated by the current situation on that island," Lantos said, calling for the immediate release of the 24 crew members, who he said China was holding illegally.
"It is extremely timely," Smith said of the resolution. "We need to send this message right now."
China is claiming victory in its battle over the Falun Gong spiritual group -- at least in a small Michigan city.
According to China's official Xinhua News Agency, Mayor Robert Thomas of the blue-collar Detroit suburb of Westland canceled a week honoring the group in early March following appeals from the Chinese consulate in Chicago.
Thomas said he'd been "hood-winked" by local followers of the meditative and health-conscious religious movement, Xinhua said.
The mayor's action vaulted Westland into the ranks of cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, who declared Falun Gong observances and then canceled them at the urging of the Chinese government.
Officials in hundreds of other US communities, including at least 20 in Michigan, have proclaimed a Falun Gong week or day. Some, including the mayor of Santee, California, have loudly protested when approached by the Chinese government to remove the declarations.
The Chinese Embassy says the declarations are a campaign of propaganda meant to gather attention and show false support for the movement.
"There are practitioners [of Falun Gong] in this country that have taken advantage of this very fine custom in America of proclamations and declarations," Zhang Yuanyuan, spokesman for Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Friday.
Zhang said the Chinese Embassy tries to alert each local government that adopts declarations for the Falun Gong that it is an "evil cult."
"We feel we have a duty to tell Americans, to tell the local governments, what they're doing. They're doing something unconsciously that could hurt Americans. What the Falun Gong are doing to the Chinese might become a nightmare for the Americans."
Supporters of Falun Gong say that's absurd.
"It's amazing the Chinese government is getting so up in arms about [Falun Gong]," said Adam Montanaro, a spokesman for the group.
"It's free, nice, healthy exercise that makes people feel better. It's not surprising that local governments are granting the proclamations. What's surprising is that the Chinese government is getting up in arms about what happens in a small town halfway around the planet."
HONG KONG - Three U.S. senators have urged the U.S. attorney general to free the leader of a Chinese spiritual sect and to grant him political asylum in the United States, a Hong Kong human rights group said on Sunday.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms and New Hampshire Republican Bob Smith proposed to U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft (news - web sites) in writing that Zhang Hongbao should be released from detention in Guam, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in a statement.
Chinese versions of the letters were sent to Hong Kong's media by the locally-based information center. The U.S. officials were not immediately available to comment.
Zhang, leader of the Zhong Gong sect, has been in detention on the U.S.-administered Pacific island of Guam since he went there in January 2000 seeking political asylum.
In June, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) court told Zhang that he would be given political asylum. But confirmation was delayed as INS authorities studied a Chinese embassy demand that he be denied asylum.
The U.S. lawmakers requested a confirmation of the INS ruling and asked that Zhong be moved to Washington D.C., where he would be safer.
Along with the better-known Falun Gong (news - web sites) spiritual movement, Zhong Gong has been banned in China as an ``evil cult,'' accused of ``using feudal superstition to deceive the masses.''
Beijing has accused Zhang of raping followers, charges which his group dismisses as fabrication.
Zhang went to Guam after six years' exile outside China. Zhong Gong members say he has been treated inhumanely in detention.
To date, the United States has given him only ``protection status'' but not political asylum.
HANGHAI - Anyone wondering what impact the information technology revolution will have on China should consider Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's nationally televised apology last month for the deaths of 38 schoolchildren who were blown to bits in their small rural schoolhouse in the impoverished province of Jiangxi.
While he said there was still no evidence to contradict the government's finding that a lone suicide bomber was responsible, his apology suggested otherwise. He even used the telling words "industrial accident" before saying, "I want to apologize and review and reflect on my own work."
It was one of those rare moments when stresses on the status quo suddenly move into alignment in a way that can force real change. In this case, the stresses come from China's fast-multiplying channels of information: newspapers, telephones, television and the Internet.
A state monopoly of information has long been considered axiomatic for totalitarian governments, just as a loss of control over information has been regarded as potentially fatal for them. So the world has watched raptly as China wires its society in order to modernize, while trying to keep its grip on information flows.
Fifteen years ago, only a privileged few had private telephones. Today, anyone can buy a temporary cellular telephone number without showing identification; meanwhile, a web of wired and wireless devices connect people in increasingly complex and anonymous ways.
The resulting cascades of information are overwhelming the government's control mechanisms and quickly changing the rules of the game. That was the lesson of last month's apology: Not only can groups like the Falun Gong spiritual movement challenge the government now; the government can no longer hide events from the public or control interpretations of such events. So new strategies are called for. On one hand, the government's security apparatus is becoming more aggressive in punishing information purveyors. Two foreign-based academics have disappeared on trips to China in the past two months. But accountability may also increase, as demonstrated by Mr. Zhu's extraordinary apology.
Unlike Japanese politicians, Chinese officials have rarely apologized publicly. Instead, they have written internal self-criticisms that land in their party personnel files. "Zhu's apology singles him out as a Chinese leader of a new type - a leader who sees himself as accountable before the public instead of a select audience of party officials," said Jeremy Paltiel, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Such an attitude has been politically risky in the past. When Zhao Ziyang, as prime minister, made an emotional appeal to hunger-striking students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, his career ended there. Before that, Hu Yaobang apologized for the Communist Party's treatment of Tibet; his career, too, ended quickly.
But these days, if the Communist Party doesn't follow Mr. Zhu's lead and become more responsive, it risks undermining confidence in its rule. "Once the media is there, sooner or later officials will have to adapt to it," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "My sense is that Zhu's apology will be remembered and emulated by some telegenic officials."
Under Communism, of course, China has always had mass media, but they were under government control. Now, access to other sources of information has brought the controlled media under challenge. Last year, for example, farmers in Jiangxi province rioted against exorbitant illegal fees after a local man published a book listing central government edicts that set limits on such levies. The provincial party banned the book and destroyed most copies, but the damage had been done.
Meanwhile, the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement has used the Internet to establish its presence and has blunted the party's campaign against it by electronically distributing reports of the torture that followers have suffered in detention.
In the schoolhouse explosion case, various media converged to catch the government, if not in a lie, at least in a hasty and poorly enunciated explanation.
The police quickly cordoned off the village to prevent reporters from reaching the site, which was then bulldozed. But even tiny Chinese villages are no longer easily isolated. The number of rural telephone lines in China have surged from about 1.4 million in 1990 to more than 34 million. The village where the explosion occurred has at least 20 telephones, and reporters reached some parents simply by dialing random numbers after the village's telephone exchange prefix. The parents said their children had been forced to assemble fireworks , and complaints had been ignored.
Regional tabloid newspapers picked up the story, which was repeated on Web sites where about 23 million of China's best educated people now get much of their news. Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards were soon buzzing.
Mr. Zhu tried to end the debate by backing the suicide bomber scenario. Then the chat rooms and bulletin boards were purged of dissenting views and newspaper editors were warned to stop independent reporting.
BUT such blackouts work imperfectly these days. It is true that newspaper editors are easily brought to heel and Internet chat rooms, which operate under the eye of government monitors with a five-second delay, are not hard to police. But erasing days worth of Internet bulletin board postings leaves obvious holes that fool no one. "Why won't you post my message?" one posting read. Meanwhile, the growing use of so-called proxy servers, which allow Internet users to bypass the blocking of overseas Web sites, is giving many people access to foreign news sources. And e-mail, impossible for the government to monitor in volume, allows otherwise forbidden debates to continue.
So the talk didn't stop and Mr. Zhu's assertions were soon being derided across China.
The dissenting views might have run their course but for another twist in the information highway: Mr. Zhu was due to give a press conference after the end of the Chinese parliament's two-week session. The event, televised live and largely unscripted, is the only time each year that the Chinese people have the opportunity to see a senior leader speak extemporaneously, and it has become a widely watched event.
It was only a matter of time before a foreign reporter asked about the schoolhouse bombing. Mr. Zhu had his answer ready and his apology.
Rick Baum, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego, takes this lesson from the incident: "While China is still some distance away from having truly accountable leaders, the gap appears to be closing. When a tree falls in the forest there are now likely to be multiple sets of ears - and cell phones and chat rooms and videocams - tuned to the event."
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
"Falun Gong 101. Introduzione al Falun Gong e alla sua presenza in Italia" (in italiano), di Massimo Introvigne
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