A 10-year-old girl dubbed "China's youngest political prisoner" has arrived in the United States after being held under house arrest and denied access to an education back home, fellow activists said.
Zhang Anni, daughter of detained veteran dissident Zhang Lin, traveled with friends and family to Shanghai last week to apply for a U.S. visa as a last resort after they were unable to secure a place in school for her during the new academic year.
Anni arrived at San Francisco airport alongside her sister Ruli on Saturday after being removed from two schools in the eastern province of Anhui, sparking protests that she was being punished for her father's activism.
"We have received news confirming that [the two girls] have arrived in the United States," U.S.-based pro-democracy activist Zheng Cunzhu said.
"We are very happy ... that they will be able to pursue a normal education in the U.S., but we also feel that this situation should never have occurred."
"They are Chinese, and yet they have been forced to leave their homes and their parents, and cross the ocean in order to receive an education which they couldn't get in their own country," Zheng said.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia, who helped the two girls leave China, said they would stay with U.S.-based women's rights activist Reggie Littlejohn, who met them at the airport.
"Anni arrived in San Francisco on Sept. 7 at 8.00 a.m. and was in [Littlejohn]'s car one hour later," said Hu, who kept the girls' flight quiet so as to avoid repercussions.
"[Littlejohn] sent me an e-mail to say Anni had already arrived at her new home, and that she had started playing the piano."
"Little Anni got a one-way ticket, while Ruli got a return," Hu said. "She will stay awhile in the U.S., to help Anni get used to her new surroundings."
Hu said he had been contacted secretly by Zhang Lin after he escaped from house arrest in Bengbu.
"He wanted me to help Anni escape her troubles," Hu said. "I didn't know him at the time, so I was quite surprised that he would entrust such a huge thing to me, but I figured that he trusted me, so I said yes."
Calls to the cell phone of Anni's mother rang unanswered on Sunday.
Fellow activist Wu Renhua, a veteran of the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement, said Anni and her half-sister Ruli weren't the first children of 1989 veterans to be targeted by the authorities.
"Zhang Lin is long-term unemployed because of his political background, and his family has suffered economic hardship as a result," Wu said.
He said an educational fund set up by fellow activist Sun Liyong had already awarded scholarships to Anni and her sister, who is in college.
"But this isn't the only case, by a long way," Wu said. "The fund awards 10 scholarships annually; cases like Zhang Lin's two daughters are very common in mainland China."
He said many dissidents imprisoned after the 1989 military crackdown on student-led protests in Tiananmen Square had married late after serving lengthy jail terms, and their children were still relatively young.
"The authorities have stripped [Anni] of her right to an education, because of her father's involvement in [the 1989 protests]," Wu said.
"Even the children of murderers can get an education [in China]."
Last week, Chinese authorities detained Yao Cheng, a friend of Zhang's who was accompanying the family to Shanghai in a late-night raid on their hotel.
Zhang, a veteran activist with the banned opposition China Democracy Party (CDP), is currently being held on public disorder charges stemming from a long-running dispute with the authorities over Anni's schooling.
Zhang was formally arrested on Aug. 22 for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" following a dispute with the authorities after police pulled Anni out of primary school in February and detained her for several hours.
In April, Zhang and Anni left the provincial capital of Anhui for the family's hometown of Bengbu after more than 30 activists from around the country converged on Hefei in protest at Anni's Feb. 27 removal from the city's Hupo Elementary School by police.
The family was held under house arrest and Anni was still denied permission to attend school, prompting Zhang to escape house arrest to press his case with National People's Congress delegates and activists in Beijing.
State security police brought the pair back to Bengbu amid firm promises that Anni could attend school and that no retaliatory action would be taken.
But the authorities swiftly moved against Zhang, holding him under criminal detention soon after his return, and prompting a lone protest from Anni outside the Bengbu detention center, where she held up a placard which read: "Release my father and let me go to school."
Zhang, 50, is a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Anhui and served more than 13 years in prison on subversion charges for his political activities since the banning of the opposition China Democracy Party (CDP) in 1998.
Reported by Xiao Rong for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.