A 46-year-old man named Zhang Hongbao from Harbin, China is facing an uncertain fate in a cramped U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services detention cell in the U.S. territory of Guam. On one hand he is just another illegal immigrant, joining thousands of other Chinese who have attempted to settle in the United States without proper papers. On the other hand, Zhang is anything but your ordinary immigrant. He’s a wealthy businessman and the leader of Zhong Gong, a mass qigong (traditional Chinese exercise) movement in China that claims some 38 million followers.

Zhong Gong recently declared itself the most serious organized opposition to the Beijing government.

“The Chinese communist dictatorship considers Zhong Gong, an organization with a large number of members and a leader who has anticommunist ideas, as a potential political threat and is very frightened. In the words of the Chinese communists, if the flag of Zhong Gong changed, it would be the biggest opposition party in China.”

That’s the view of a U.S.-based Zhong Gong follower, offered in a letter to the U.S. Congress last week.

The Chinese Communist Party begs to disagree. According to Xinhua news reports, Zhong Gong is an “evil cult” led by a common criminal who must be repatriated to China for punishment.

Zhang was on the verge of winning political asylum last July when the Chinese Embassy in Washington issued papers demanding his return on criminal charges. Zhang’s business empire, now being dismantled, was centered on the Kylin Group, which was made up of some 60 companies centered in Tianjin. The group reportedly employed 100,000 workers, mostly in qigong-related education, publication and health-product ventures.

A comparison with Falun Gong immediately comes to mind — a mass qigong movement claiming millions of followers loyal to an enigmatic leader. Furthermore, the leaders of both groups are presently in the U.S., creating diplomatic friction as Beijing has sought the extradition of both.

There are differences worth noting. The two movements have been treated quite differently by the Chinese government and claim no relation to one another. While Falun Gong has been the target of noisy public denunciations, arrests and nonstop acid commentary in China’s state press, Xinhua coverage of Zhong Gong has been so muted that the government crackdown on the group is almost unknown in China.

Zhang and his movement have been spared the vitriolic anticult broadsides directed against Li Hongzhi and his group, Falun Gong, but Zhang is being charged with the humiliating criminal offense of rape, a charge 10 years old and difficult to verify.

Tarring political dissidents with the brush of sexual crimes has become common practice, according to Chinese publisher Richard Long of Dacankao News Service, as China seeks to find ways to arrest opponents of the regime without raising human-rights questions. Over 40 dissidents have been charged with sexual crimes in last year or so.

Having failed to sway the U.S. to return Li despite his role in the “evil cult” of Falun Gong, Beijing is using a different strategy to dismantle the Zhong Gong movement. Beijing’s Xinhua news characterizes the U.S. refusal to repatriate Zhang as “an action by the U.S. side to help a criminal suspect escape the punishment he deserves.” This will likely fall on deaf ears in the U.S., where suspects are assumed innocent until proven guilty.

According to an associate, Yan Qingxin, who was arrested with Zhang for illegally entering the U.S. and later granted political asylum, Zhang qualified for political asylum but a hasty 11th-hour attempt by Chinese diplomats to have him deported complicated his release. Judge Dayna Dias of the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Hawaii granted him “withholding of repatriation” status on Sept. 20, which protects him from forcible return to China, though the INS may appeal this decision.

More difficult to understand is the continued detention of Zhang nearly five months after he qualified for political asylum. Zhang has made complaints of inhumane treatment at the hands of INS guards, including an incident where he was “poked in the eyes with a stick while meditating.”

The INS maintains it is holding him for his own safety. That being the case, it is all the harder to understand why Zhang is being held in a joint cell with other Chinese inmates, who are unknown to him and possibly hostile.

Yan maintains her associate is the victim of the delicate diplomatic dance between the U.S. and China, saying that even Zhang’s lawyer has not been offered a clear explanation as to why his client is still behind bars in Guam.

Not receiving political asylum status puts Zhang in legal limbo, allowing him to reside in the U.S. “as a protection against possible torture or the death sentence,” but failing to grant him more secure status as a refugee, a permanent resident or an immigrant.

The unusual adjudication may reflect the U.S. government’s dual and somewhat contradictory goals of offering human-rights protection while attempting to placate China on a politically sensitive issue to firm up cooperation on other issues, including international crime.

One of Zhong Gong’s publications in 1992 shows a photograph of traditional healer Zhang Congping with Chinese President Jiang Zemin after she treated him for an illness. One possibility is that Beijing could be concerned about Zhong Gong’s intimate knowledge of the health problems of top Chinese leaders such as Jiang who in the past have sought traditional treatment from members of Zhong Gong.

Zhong Gong has few followers in the U.S. and its leader remains in prison. But it’s starting to attract international attention. Wei Jingsheng and Wang Xizhe, two leading democracy activists who spent long years in China’s prison system, are talking of going to Guam to protest the imprisonment of yet another dissident — this time in an American prison.

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