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Note that though Zhong Gong claims to have about 20 million followers, Chinese cult critic Sima Nan says it is one of several qi gong movements larger than Falun Gong, which claims 100 million adherents (while the Chinese government puts the figure for the latter closer to 30 million).
The movement combines classical qigong, a traditional deep breathing exercise with elements of traditional Chinese culture.
It has eight levels of development, stressing the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Those who reach the fourth level are said to acquire powers such as greatly enhanced vision and hearing.
The lawsuit is the latest in a string of accusations against Hong Bao Zhang, 49, that claim the exiled founder of Zhong Gong is a violent racketeer.
If convicted, Hongbao Zhang, also known as Zhang Hongbao, could face deportation, and that could mean a death sentence in his native country, according to experts on his movement.
The founder of the Zhong Gong sect, Zhang Hongbao, was granted asylum by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeal on Wednesday, reversing a previous ruling, the Information Centre for Human Rights & Democracy said in a statement.
Zhang Hongbao, 46, was granted the right to remain in the United States in September, but his asylum request is still pending and he remains in detention in Guam.
China has vigorously opposed his application, branding him a criminal and has accused him of raping several followers and demanded his deportation.
The US Justice Department refused to comment on individual cases, but said that Zhang had been granted protection by virtue of a law which grants refuge to people deemed likely to face torture in their homelands.
A department official said allegations against Zhang were being carefully studied, before a decision could be made on the asylum request.
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.
The asylum request, by Zhang Hongbao, founder of a large spiritual movement called Zhong Gong, has posed a difficult choice for the American immigration service: The United States wants to foster the mutual extradition of criminals with China, and failure to turn over Mr. Zhang - who arrived in Guam with a fake Chinese passport - would be deeply resented by Beijing.
But Mr. Zhang insists he is a victim of political persecution and American officials know that given Beijing's campaign to crush his organization, he is extremely unlikely to receive a fair trial. They also know that charges of rape or other criminal activities have sometimes been trumped up by Chinese authorities to silence dissidents.
Mr. Zhang, 46, is in detention in Guam, awaiting an immigration decision this month.
Today, in an apparent effort to bolster their case, officials here took the unusual step of providing copies to a small number of foreign journalists of what they said were statements by rape victims, the victims' photographs (with eyes blacked out), arrest warrants and other documents. These were a portion of the evidence given to the United States government, a Chinese official said.
The materials were provided on condition that the supposed victims not be fully identified, and that the office be concealed.
''We want to repatriate Zhang Hongbao because he broke the law, not because of his work with Zhong Gong,'' said the official.
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.
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