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Stakes High for Accused Dissident

Times Staff Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservatives who loathed Clinton’s China policy thought they could make a statement by saving Zhang, and Republican Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Trent Lott of Mississippi lobbied on his behalf. He was released soon after President Bush took office. He settled in Washington, D.C., before moving to California.

Zhang has remained in relative obscurity here, living with three female followers at an elaborate hillside home in northeast Pasadena, said He, the former housekeeper.

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The house is decorated with luxuries such as a dining table trimmed with gold, He said. Zhang also owns exotic animals, including peacocks, turtles and snakes.

The former housekeeper said he had a fascination with leaders and power, often taking notes when watching films about ancient Chinese emperors. He even bought a Lincoln car because he liked the presidential tone of it, she said.

Some former associates of Zhang say the Zhong Gong leader had inflated ideas of his importance. Shengde Lian, executive director of the Washington-based Free China Movement, recalled that Zhang was in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and panicked when he heard helicopters, believing them to be sent by Chinese authorities to capture him.

Weeks earlier, Lian recalled, Zhang wrongly assumed that Bush would strike a deal with Jiang Zemin that would result in the exile’s exoneration.

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“He’s not important enough,” Lian said.

Now that Zhang faces criminal charges in California, Lian’s group and other Chinese dissident organizations are uncertain how to view him.

Lian said he saw Zhang hit a female Zhong Gong lieutenant two years ago in Washington -- an event that, to Lian, adds validity to the accusations of murder and rape that Zhang faces in China.

But those charges were not substantiated by the U.S. officials who granted Zhang asylum, and Chinese authorities brought the charges nearly 10 years after the alleged incidents.

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A statement from the Chinese Embassy during Zhang’s detention in Guam said he was not wanted for his involvement in Zhong Gong, but because he had “committed heinous crimes.” It provided no specifics on the murder charge, but detailed alleged rapes of female adherents, some of whom were minors or disabled.

Some China experts say it’s common for Chinese officials to fabricate charges against dissidents they want to discredit.

John Kusumi, executive director of the Connecticut-based China Support Network, was reluctant to draw conclusions about Zhang’s character before his case was concluded. However, he said, the implications of the charges against him in Pasadena should not be ignored.

“It would be like capital punishment for beating the housekeeper,” Kusumi said. “The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. If it comes to deportation, then we have human rights concerns. Once he’s in China, Mr. Zhang cannot expect due process or a fair trial.”

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Times staff writer Jia-Rui Chong contributed to this report.


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