Separated from her single father and deprived of education in her homeland, 10-year-old Zhang Anni, daughter of the imprisoned Chinese dissident Zhang Lin, has arrived in the U.S. with her older sister. The girls left China on Sept. 7.
Zhang Lin is a Tsinghua-trained nuclear physicist and political activist from Anhui Province. Since the 1980s he has spent a total of 13 years in prison. He was jailed for leading student hunger strikes in Anhui in support of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, and more recently in 2005 and 2007 for publishing online articles critical of the regime.
In February of this year, when Zhang was detained, his daughter Anni, 10, was kidnapped by four thugs after school and held in illegal detention for 20 hours without food or water. The two were released and deported to Bengbu, about 80 miles away from Hefei. On July 19, Zhang was suspected of intent to “gather a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” and detained — illegally — by the Bengbu Public Security Bureau, according to Human Rights in China. He remains in detention and is yet to be charged.
Unable to return to school, Anni wrote a letter of appeal on April 10 to Peng Liyuan, the wife of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. “Grandma Peng, I really want to go back to school. Please, can you and Grandpa Xi tell uncle policemen and the teachers to let me go back?” she wrote, as reported by China Change, a website that monitors human rights in China.
Anni and her sister Zhang Ruli, who is a university student, arrived at the San Francisco International Airport from Shanghai in the morning of Sept. 7, according to Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, a California-based international organization that opposes forced abortion and sexual slavery in China.
With the help of many Chinese activists and American officials, Littlejohn and her husband were able to secure the safe passage of the sisters to the United States as well as guardianship over Anni, who is now staying with them. Littlejohn did not wish to discuss the conditions of Anni’s visa, or the details of how the U.S. Department of State or the Chinese activist Hu Jia assisted her flight from China.
“Zhang Lin is detained and for that reason Anni needed someone to take care of her,” Littlejohn said in a telephone interview. “The parents divorced in 2011. Anni was in danger of being taken to an orphanage. My husband and I have offered her a home with us for her to stay as long as she wants to study in the United States. It’s a miracle that she’s here.”
Littlejohn became involved in Anni’s case in April, when Anni was barred from returning to school. She first spoke with Anni and her father during a radio interview, while demonstrations were being held at Anni’s school as part of an effort to allow her to get an education.
“Ever since I had that conversation my heart has been breaking over the situation. Zhang Lin is just one of these people whose courage you can’t even comprehend… he deserves to know that his daughter is in a safe place, that she’s going to school and we’re doing everything we can to give her a normal American life.”
Anni, who has taken a liking to American food — hamburgers, in particular — also enjoys to play the piano and has gotten used to Littlejohn’s pet Amazon parrot, named Huascar, with which she talks.
“We have a gorgeous Steinway grand in the living room,” Littlejohn said. “I’m very excited that she likes to play. I’m hoping to get her a piano teacher.”
With reporting by Matthew Robertson. Research by Frank Fang.