Thursday, August 14, 2014

Zhonggong: The Subversive Business of Qigong

Qigong practitioners "receiving energy (qi)" from a qigong master. During the 1980s and 90s, gatherings like this were popular in China. Image credit: Netease News 

Qigong—involving mediation, breathing, and movement—is meant to heal, but according to Chinese authorities, it can also harm. The central government has banned 14 “harmful” qigong organizations not including the popularly known Falun Gong, which was outlawed as a “cult.”[1] Though distinctly branded, at least one lesser known qigong organization, Zhonggong, has experienced government suppression similar to that of Falun Gong.

China’s qigong craze lasted from around 1978 to 1999. Qigong was popularized by the Communist Party as “somatic science” under the banner of the “Four Modernizations,” which included national defense, agriculture, industry, and science and technology. During the 1980s, the homegrown healing practice instilled confidence in Chinese ingenuity at a time when the country was still reeling from decades of internal upheaval.

Zhonggong, also known as China Healthcare and Wisdom Enhancement Practice (中华养生智能功), was established by Zhang Hongbao (张宏堡) in 1987. Zhang gained popularity by publicly demonstrating his mystical healing powers, and at its peak, Zhonggong claimed to have 38 million members and 100,000 employees nationwide. Some scholars believe that, until about 1995, Zhonggong was more popular in China than Falun Gong.

However, with qigong popularity, came high-level opposition. In April 1999, state-run media ran an article entitled “I Don’t Support Youth Practicing Qigong,” calling Falun Gong “superstitious” and “harmful.” In response, 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners surrounded Zhongnanhai and demanded an apology. Unwilling to make concessions to a group that threatened party loyalty through mass mobilization, the central government outlawed Falun Gong as a cult in July 1999. Zhonggong was branded a harmful qigong organization later that year and banned for defying leaders; spreading superstition; and engaging in criminal acts such as pyramid schemes, rapes, and murders.

Shortly after the ban, Zhang Hongbao fled to Guam. China filed a request for his extradition, but the United States declined in accordance with the UN Convention Against Torture. Receiving protective resident status in 2001, Zhang faced a series of civil lawsuits and felony charges in the United States between 2003 and 2005. Some accusations, such as domestic violence, were related to his personal life, while others related to Zhonggong. By the time Zhang died in a car accident in July 2006, however, most of these cases had been withdrawn.

With the exception of Zhang Hongbao, individual Zhonggong leaders have garnered little international attention. They are generally not viewed as victims of religious or political persecution. This is due in part to the fact that Zhonggong has historically been more commercial than Falun Gong, making it seem at times more akin to a business marketed on its health benefits than a spiritual organization. (Zhonggong members are more or less required to purchase practice sessions and publications to increase their group rank.) It is also important to note that, perhaps influenced by religious persecution during the Mao period and the celebration of somatic science that continued into the 1990s, many qigong practitioners, including Zhonggong adherents, do not identify as religious followers. Still, the focus on qigong’s “extraordinary powers” has led some western scholars to recognize Zhonggong as part of the “new religious movement”—the emergence in China of a number of non-mainstream religious sects after reform and opening began in 1978.

While official Chinese media often claim that Zhonggong was banned to protect people from social harms (e.g., defiance, superstition, and criminal activity), the crackdown on the group, if not religious, is at least partly political. According to data in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database, Zhonggong leaders are more likely than Falun Gong leaders to be convicted of endangering state security (ESS) crimes. The database includes information on two dozen Zhonggong leaders detained or sentenced since 1999.

1999-2002: Early Suppression

Within the first two years of its banning, Zhonggong saw 600 leaders detained nationwide, according to overseas media reports. Nearly a dozen were sentenced for inciting subversion, an ESS offense. ESS charges stemmed from the distribution of two critical letters about Jiang Zemin, then Chinese president, to thousands of police stations. Written pseudonymously by two people who claimed to be police officers, the letters stated that Jiang’s crackdown on Zhonggong resembled Mao Zedong’s lawlessness during the “Three-Anti and Five-Anti Campaigns” and the Cultural Revolution. Police who received the letter were urged to defy Jiang’s order to arrest Zhonggong practitioners. As a result of the letter campaign, 11 Zhonggong leaders from Henan, Jiangsu, and Qinghai provinces were convicted of inciting subversion and sentenced to 1‒4 years in prison or reeducation through labor (RTL) between 2000 and 2001.

Perhaps due to the fact that they caused less of a stir, Zhonggong leaders received shorter sentences than Falun Gong leaders in the first years after they were banned. The lengthiest sentence Dui Hua has recorded for a Zhonggong leader during this period is seven years’ imprisonment, handed down to Zhou Xinyang (周新扬) for tax evasion in Hunan. Several other leaders in Hubei, Chongqing, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Zhejiang were sentenced to 1‒3 years in prison or RTL for disturbing social order or illegal medical practice. A number of Falun Gong leaders who participated in the Zhongnanhai protests were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison on cult charges.

In Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China, sociologist David Palmer argues that unlike Falun Gong, Zhonggong declined swiftly in the face of repression because its leaders were primarily motivated by money. Public security records in Sichuan also suggest that many Zhonggong members stopped holding practice sessions immediately after 1999.

Some official records indicate, however, that Zhonggong’s influence remained. Dozens to hundreds of active practitioners continued to be found in counties in Anhui, Hebei, Henan, Shaanxi, and Xinjiang. Local governments launched a series of crackdowns on Zhonggong revivals known as the “first reorganization.” For example, in 2000, Sun Haixin (孙海欣) and Hu Wanping (胡皖平) were detained in Anhui for possessing more than 100 tons of Zhonggong books and audiovisual materials and “illegally raised funds” exceeding 4.7 million yuan. In 2002, Hu Suyan (胡素艳) and Ji Sujuan (纪淑娟) were said to have sold dozens of Zhonggong publications and antiseptic products in Gaocheng City, Anhui. Official sources do not mention whether these individuals were convicted of any crimes.

Sentenced Zhonggong Leaders by Crime, 1999‒2001
Name Location Sentence Facility
Inciting Subversion
Huang Wanping 黄万平 Jiangsu 4 years Prison
Qin Zhaoyang 秦朝阳 Jiangsu 3 years Prison
Zhai Xuehai 翟学海 Jiangsu 3 years Prison
Dong Jielan 董佳兰 Jiangsu 2 years Prison
Ju De 居德 Henan 2.5 years Prison
Ye Yaonian 叶耀年 Henan 2.5 years Prison
Rui Guojie 芮国杰 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Zhao Zegen 赵泽根 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Yang Weihu 杨卫虎 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Xiang Renbo 项仁波 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Chai Jinchun 柴景春 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Disturbing Social Order
Cheng Yaqin 程亚琴 Hebei 2 years RTL
Xi Dafang 席大芳 Guangxi 1 year RTL
Illegal Medical Practice
Chen Jinlong 陈金龙 Zhejiang 2 years Prison
Tax Evasion
Zhou Xinyang 周新扬 Hunan 7 years Prison
Li Xiaoning 李晓宁 Chongqing 3 years Prison
Wang Xuemei 王雪梅 Guangdong 2 years Prison
Yan Xiehe 严协和 Guangxi 3 years Prison

Mid-2000s: “Second Activation”

Zhonggong Founder Zhang Hongbao. Source:

Around the mid-2000s, the term “second activation” began to appear in government sources to describe Zhonggong’s second revival, and local government records began labelling Zhonggong activities as “anti-China.” This development followed an increase in Zhang Hongbao’s political activism overseas. After taking up residence in the United States, Zhang claimed to have raised $2.7 million for China’s democracy movement. In 2003, he founded Zhonggong’s US headquarters and declared himself president of “China Shadow Government,” an opposition group in exile which advocated for political reform.

Official yearbooks condemned activities involved in the second activation. In 2005, 20 “reactionary” slogans—“Let’s unite, reclaim our Zhonggong bases, and learn from the Falun Gong spirit”—were discovered in Baoji, Shaanxi. In 2006, Zhonggong leaders reportedly aligned with overseas hostile forces to establish an underground opposition party in Wushan County, Chongqing. That same year, four months after his death, Zhang was labeled by Tianjin’s Anti-cult Association—a non-profit, voluntary group whose members often have government backgrounds—as a traitor who used funding from hostile western forces to divide China.

During this period, Zhonggong leaders faced harsher punishments than those reported from 1999 to 2001. Li Zhanling (李占领) was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion in 2004. According to his defense lawyers, Li was appointed a leader during Zhonggong’s first and second reorganizations. He was in charge of organizing practice sessions and training leaders in Cangzhou, Hebei Province.

In a separate case, an online verdict indicated that seven leaders detained in 2006 in Donggang City, Liaoning, were sentenced to 6‒15 years’ imprisonment in September 2008. Although Zhonggong is not officially classified as a cult, it is often targeted in anti-cult propaganda, and one of the defendants in the Donggang case, Gong Shaohong (宫绍洪), was convicted on cult charges. (The other six leaders in this case were sentenced for illegal business activities.)

Prosecutors accused Gong of compiling and editing three banned books that “rejected atheism,” widely cited Zhang Hongbao’s theories, and “spread apocalyptical rumors.” Over 6,000 copies of these books were sold as teaching materials in 10 provinces, and the sales of all publications (including but not limited to the book) generated revenues exceeding 7 million yuan. Confessing to tax evasion and illegal business activity, Gong insisted that he was not involved in any cult activity. Nonetheless, he was convicted on all three charges and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, the longest known sentence for a Zhonggong leader.

After their release in 2011, some individuals involved in the Donggang case published online posts claiming that they were victims of forced confession. They said the charges were fabricated by a state security officer who confiscated and embezzled their book sale revenues. While admitting to practicing Zhonggong in the past, they claimed to have relinquished it soon after the national ban. They also stated in Gong Shaohong’s defense that his books aimed to cultivate love for the party and the nation.

Sentenced Zhonggong Leaders by Crime, 2004‒2008
Name Prison Sentence Release Date
Inciting Subversion
Li Zhanling 李占领 10 years 2014
Organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law
Gong Shaohong 宫绍洪 † 15 years Apr 5, 2021
Illegal business activity
Wang Shujuan 王淑娟 6 years Nov 30, 2011
Yu Yongxiang 于永香 6 years Nov 30, 2011
Yu Yongfang 于永芳 ‡ 8 years Nov 25, 2014
Xi Yong 刁勇 5 years Nov 25, 2011
Gong Shaoying 宫绍英 5 years Nov 25, 2011
Guo Zhenfeng 郭振凤 Suspended --
† Gong Shaohong was also convicted of illegal business activity and tax evasion.
‡ Yu Yongfang was also convicted of tax evasion.

Post-2006: Lingering Influence

Internal frictions arising from Zhang Hongbao’s death in 2006 are believed to have further weakened Zhonggong’s influence in China, but Zhonggong groups continue to operate. Local government records still mention crackdowns on Zhonggong alongside suppression of Falun Gong and banned Christian groups such as Almighty God.

For example, in May 2010, two Zhonggong leaders from Hebei and Sichuan provinces were given admonitions for inviting nearly 500 practitioners from more than 10 provinces to join a secret gathering to celebrate the birthday of another Zhonggong master. A sentence for attempting “to illegally amass vast fortunes” was handed down to the man whose birthday was to be celebrated at a Buddhist temple in Wuxue City, Hubei.

In January 2011, Ningxia’s government website expounded upon the “reactionary” nature of Zhonggong. It proclaimed that Zhonggong founder Zhang Hongbao had a hidden agenda to turn qigong classes into another Whampoa Military Academy. (The academy produced a number of prominent mainland Chinese revolutionary leaders from its founding in 1924 until it was relocated to Taiwan in 1950.) The article also stated that Zhang urged his followers to be independent of the party’s control and to listen to Zhonggong’s US headquarters. It said some members deemed Zhonggong’s ideology as the only cure to widespread corruption in China. In 2012, multiple townships in Hebei, Hunan, Shanxi, and Sichuan provinces released anti-Zhonggong directives on their government websites.

The most recently published Zhonggong case involved ESS charges. In 2013, the Hubei High People’s Court sentenced a Zhonggong leader surnamed Wang to three years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion. The court found that Wang had organized two Zhonggong training courses for nearly 40 practitioners in Zhangjiajie and Xiangtan, Hunan. Participants paid 1,200 yuan for each of the courses during which Wang made “slanderous” remarks about the party. (He described it as a “demon” and a corrupt regime that murdered many people during the Cultural Revolution). Witnesses confirmed that Wang gave lectures on how the party persecuted Zhonggong and Zhang Hongbao. In addition to circulating the Nine Commentaries, a banned Falun Gong publication, Wang was also said to have distributed Charter 08, the political manifesto that largely led to the imprisonment of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), and materials about June Fourth. At his home, Wang was found to have saved 21 copies of Falun Gong documents on multiple electronic devices.

Zhonggong is officially “harmful,” but the grounds for its stigmatization are not entirely clear. Is the group too religious or superstitious? Is it violent or fraudulent? Or is it merely defiant? Official media have set the tone by reporting on sensational Zhonggong cases and individuals but could it be, as public records show, that the problem with Zhonggong is not that it is harmful, but that it is political?  

[1] The Chinese names of the “14 harmful qigong groups” are: 1. 中华养生益智功(简称中功)2. 香功 3. 菩提功 4.元极功 5. 华藏功 6. 中华昆仑女神功 7. 人宇特能功 8. 三三九乘元功 9. 日月气功 10. 万法归一功 11. 慈悲功 12. 沈昌人体科技 13. 一通健康法 14. 中国自然特异功。(Source: Meishan Daily)     top