WASHINGTON, D.C. – A U.S.-based human rights activist is raising China’s youngest known political prisoner and her sister after the girls fled their native country, where their famous father is still imprisoned.
Reggie Littlejohn, founder of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, which fights gendercide and forced abortion in Asia, recently told LifeSiteNews the dramatic story of the events that led to her adoption of the girls, in a video interview with Managing Director Steve Jalsevac in Washington, DC.
Littlejohn said that Anni Zhang, 11, and her elder sister Ruli, 19, left China in September after their father, political dissident and nuclear physicist Zhang Lin, was once again imprisoned for speaking out against the Communist government. He had already spent 13 years behind bars for his involvement in planning the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and for publishing comments critical of the Chinese government online.
Zhang’s most recent imprisonment came after Anni – then ten years old – was kidnapped from her school by the authorities and detained overnight without food, water, a toilet, or even a blanket. After she was returned to her father, she was told that she would not be allowed to attend school anymore because of her father’s pro-democracy activism.
Undaunted, her father led protests against the school and the Communist Party, demanding they give his daughter an education. But during the protests, they were both detained by police and subsequently placed on house arrest. They were able to escape last summer, but Chinese authorities caught up to them in July and once again arrested them. When Zhang realized he would be returning to prison, he reached out to the international activist community for help. He wanted to get Anni out of the country, as it was clear she would never be able to live a normal life in China.
Zhang is “terribly courageous,” Littlejohn told LifeSiteNews. “He has been tortured horribly in jail. For example, his older daughter Ruli has said that what the Chinese Communist Party will do is, they will put him in a cell with people with highly infectious fatal diseases, and murderers, and … they’ll tell the murderers, ‘Do whatever you want,’ and he has been beaten within an inch of his life.”
Littlejohn said the injuries Zhang has suffered in prison are so severe that since Anni was about eight years old, she was the one taking care of her father – cooking, cleaning and doing the household shopping. (Anni’s mother divorced Zhang and left the family in 2011.)
According to Littlejohn, the government’s treatment of little Anni – detaining her, placing her under house arrest, and denying her an education – are “typical” tactics the Communist Party uses to try to silence dissidents.
“They did their best to silence Zhang Lin through incarceration and torture and denial of medical treatment, [but] they could not silence him,” Littlejohn said. “So then they go after his kids.”
Littlejohn first met the Zhang family in 2013 during the protests at Anni’s school. Anni and her father were interviewed for Boxun Radio at the same time as Littlejohn was being interviewed via satellite link. During the broadcast, Littlejohn said, “Zhang Lin gave a fiery speech, Anni gave a fiery speech, I gave a fiery speech, and at the end of it, the interviewer said, ‘Would you and Anni like to speak to each other? You’re a women’s rights activist in the United States; she’s an up-and-coming women’s rights activist in China; so of course we said yes.”
“I was able to say to her, ‘Anni, I am so impressed with you. I’m impressed with your courage, I’m impressed with your intelligence, with your articulateness, with your poise; you know, that at ten years old you have the wherewithal to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party. If you would remain true, if you can remain humble, if you could remain pure, you can help lead your people to freedom.’”
“That was our first conversation,” Littlejohn said. “Our first conversation was over national radio.” At the time, Littlejohn had no idea that Anni would soon be living in her home, being raised as her daughter.
It was in August that Zhang Lin was able to get a message out to Littlejohn saying he wanted Anni to go to the United States. He asked Littlejohn to find a safe place for the little girl to live, where she could get an education and live a normal life, away from the constant surveillance and threats of the Communist Party. Otherwise, he worried Anni might end up in a state-run orphanage.
Little did Zhang know that his request was an answer to ten years of Littlejohn’s prayers – her work with Chinese girls had given her a strong desire to parent one, but she knew that the Chinese government would never approve her request for adoption because of her human rights activism.
Littlejohn has devoted her life to fighting for women and girls in Asia. As a lawyer in the early 1990s, she represented a client who sought asylum in the United States after undergoing a forced sterilization in China. Littlejohn was so shocked to learn about the widespread human rights violations targeting Asian women that she founded Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.
“I [asked Zhang], ‘Well, where is she going to go?’ and [Zhang said] ‘We don’t know.’ So I said, ‘Let me call my husband,’” Littlejohn recalled.
“My husband is the most awesome man in the world,” she added. “It was just a phone call. I didn’t even have to sit him down on the couch and say, ‘Honey, there’s a girl in China,’ you know, I just said, ‘Rob, remember Anni? She needs to come to the United States; she needs a place to stay,’ and there was, like, this pause, and he said … ‘Is this the daughter from China that you’ve wanted for so many years, for ten years?’ And I said, ‘I think so.’”
Littlejohn and her husband agreed to take the little girl in, so activists in China went to work smuggling the girl and her sister out of the country.
“It was a long process to get [Anni] out of China and into the United States,” Littlejohn said. “There are four people currently detained in China because they helped Anni [escape]. Four people are in jail right now because they helped Anni. So the Chinese Communist Party let her go, but they made sure it was very, very costly.”
It was only after the girls’ arrival in the U.S. that Littlejohn learned that Anni – as the second child fathered by Zhang Lin – was almost a victim of China’s One-Child Policy – the same policy she has dedicated her life to destroying.
“The family planning police had come after [Anni’s] mother and had been pressuring her mother to abort her, to the extent that her mother was almost going crazy with the constant, constant, constant pressure,” Littlejohn said. “Her mother had to hide. Zhang Lin was able to finally get permission for Anni to be born, but Anni could have been one of the 400 million lives that have been prevented by the One-Child Policy … as far as I’m concerned, every one of those lives that was prevented could have been Anni, could have been my own daughter.”
Since the girls’ arrival in the U.S., they have been focused on learning English and acclimating to their new lives. Anni has taken a liking to hamburgers, and enjoys playing the piano. Meanwhile, Ruli has started to speak out more about the human rights violations her family has endured, penning an open letter to world leaders on the recent 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in which she slammed the Chinese government for “doing their utmost to persecute people, even reaching their evil claws to a ten-year-old child,” and divulging more details about the abuse their father endured at the hands of the Communist Party.
It is Littlejohn’s hope that Anni will someday follow in both her families’ footsteps.
“Anni has the personality … of a leader,” Littlejohn told LifeSiteNews. “She is very charismatic, [and has a] very strong personality. … [She is] smart like her father and a survivor of the One-Child Policy, and someday I would love to see her take over the reins of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.”