In February, California resident Sherry Zhang received a call from her parents back in China—a group of officers from the communist regime’s top intelligence agency had shown up at their workplace.
The couple, in their late 70s, runs a factory in southern China’s Guangdong Province.
“Are you the principal of this school?” Zhang’s parents asked her on the phone. “Is this true?”
They sent Zhang a copy of a webpage, which included her photo and a short bio, Zhang told The Epoch Times in a phone interview. She immediately recognized the page—it’s from the official site of the San Francisco High School of the Arts, where she has been principal since 2015.
“I know my parents never go online; they’re old-fashioned,” said Zhang, who has been living in the United States since 1992. She believes the officers from the Ministry of State Security gave her parents the copy.
According to Zhang, the officers told the elderly couple that Zhang is the head of a school that’s “against China.” They then accused the parents of funneling money from their factory to the school, she said.
The officers then issued a veiled threat: If they uncovered any proof of this, the factory would be shut down and Zhang’s parents would be jailed, Zhang said.
For the elderly couple, all of this came as a rude shock because Zhang had never told them anything about her profession or where she worked.
That’s because Zhang is a practitioner of Falun Gong, a meditation practice persecuted by the Chinese regime since 1999. Millions of Falun Gong practitioners who refuse to give up their faith have been arrested, detained, or tortured in China. For practitioners based overseas who have family inside China, the regime has threatened their relatives, hoping to pressure the overseas practitioners to stay silent about Beijing’s human rights abuses.
Since the start of the persecution, Zhang, a U.S. citizen who has lived in the country for almost two decades, has joined protests in the United States calling for an end to the atrocities in China. She has friends whose relatives from her hometown in China were persecuted to death. “I know it’s real,” she said. “I think we should speak out.
“Falun Gong is my personal belief,” she said, adding that San Francisco High School of the Arts is a non-religious private school with faculty staff from diverse religious backgrounds.
The school focuses on teaching traditions, universal values, and a sense of civic duty, according to its website. Its arts curriculum includes ballet, Chinese dance, classical instruments and vocal music, visual arts, and musical theater.
Zhang had not revealed details of her work to her parents these past years. “I never wanted them to worry,” she said.
The Epoch Times is withholding details relating to Zhang’s parents and their business for safety reasons.
‘They Target Almost Anyone’
For the months following the call in February, officials would show up to “inspect” her parents’ factory every other day, Zhang said.
“It’s never been seen that so many departments all come at once, and every time they come, they have like seven or eight people,” Zhang said, adding that officials from tax, labor, customs, and health agencies were all involved. “The employees feel pressured. They can’t operate normally.”
One employee got hold of Zhang’s number and called her several times. This person asked her to back out from her position at the school so the factory could be “free of trouble.”
“I think [the Ministry of State Security] was trying to get their words to me,” Zhang said. “They just want to make things happen so that I could do things according to their wish.”
Experiencing regular harassment from officials, Zhang’s parents now believe they have only two options left: Get Zhang to resign from the school, or cut off all ties with their daughter, Zhang said.
“If you guys feel too much pressure, you can say we’re not connected anymore,” Zhang told her parents in a phone conversation. “I don’t want to be your burden.”
This isn’t the first time Zhang’s parents have been pressured by local authorities.
Chinese police have harassed her parents since as early as 2001, Zhang said. In one case, the police called her mother to meet at a restaurant. When she got there, the police told her to get Zhang to stop practicing Falun Gong. “My mom felt very disturbed,” she said.
Zhang’s parents were never against her practicing Falun Gong, but they were afraid of the officials, she said. “They don’t feel like they can do a whole lot.”
Recently, communications from Zhang’s parents have dried up. The last time they called was more than two weeks ago. They mentioned that the police “keep saying they found more evidence.”
Zhang is unsure what’s actually going on back home right now. “My parents try to not tell me much anymore,” she said.
Having not heard from her parents, Zhang doesn’t know what will happen next.
“They [the Chinese regime] don’t just target Falun Gong practitioners. I think they’re trying to control overseas Chinese because they have their roots in China: their parents, relatives, friends,” Zhang said. “They target almost anyone they view as not in line with their [communist] doctrine.”
Zhang came to the United States in 1992. She completed a doctorate in chemistry before doing post-doctoral work at the University of California–Berkeley, researching lithium-ion batteries. After a few years of industry work, she got together with a group of like-minded parents who were dissatisfied with the U.S. public school system, and in 2010 co-founded San Francisco High School of the Arts.
“We think that a school teaching traditional arts and universal values,” as well as “respect, empathy, honesty, kindness, tolerance, and responsibility,” is very important, she said.
“When you go into a lot of schools, especially high schools, you can see the children are not necessarily motivated. I was told by many parents there’s not a single high school in San Francisco that doesn’t have drug issues.”
Many parents who come to her are concerned that their children lack traditional values and work ethics, she said. “They want their children to be positive, contributing members of society.”
Zhang described a typical day of work as “busy but enjoyable.” She holds weekly assemblies with students on topics such as the dangers of drug addiction. Zhang’s students are like her own children, she said.
The students have told Zhang stories of their previous schools. “They felt like they couldn’t speak what was on their mind, otherwise they couldn’t fit in,” she said. “Only the loud people got their voices heard.”
Exposing the Chinese regime’s egregious abuses of power is her way of practicing what she teaches to her students, Zhang said.
“Every note [the students] play, every dance movement they make, we keep on encouraging them to work hard, and they will persevere. We teach them that goodness will prevail,” she said. “I would have to stick to the same thing.”
Zhang said the Chinese regime is infiltrating every corner of the international community. “They try to control everything, control a lot of media, a lot of schools,” she said.
“We’re teaching the traditional values here … that’s not what they want to see.”
Zhang said the Chinese regime tries to influence Americans through the Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, Beijing-funded language centers found in colleges and K–12 institutions that have been criticized for promoting Chinese Communist Party propaganda and suppressing academic discussion and freedom on topics the regime doesn’t want to be discussed.
“They want the next generation to be an easier target and to really infiltrate what’s easy to infiltrate—the children,” she said.