It has been 25 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, and China is still far from enjoying religious liberty, civil freedom or democracy. The Catholic Church must still worship underground, and the country’s one-child policy continues to cause widespread human rights atrocities, particularly against women. Forced abortions continue, and the government has even reverted to placing the children of dissidents in detention.
One dissident was Zhang Lin, a nuclear physicist who has been detained nearly half a dozen times over the past 13 years. A fearless champion of human rights, Lin wasn’t at Tiananmen but led protests as part of the pro-democracy movement in his hometown. He currently remains behind bars for speaking out against the Chinese Communist Party.
But his 10-year-old daughter, Anni, managed to escape China last year, and is being taken care of by Reggie Littlejohn, founder of the group Women Rights Without Frontiers, which has long been campaigning for an end to the one child policy and forced abortion in China. She is also looking after Lin’s older, 19-year-old daughter, Ruli.
To find out more about the current situation in the country and Anni’s remarkable escape, the Register spoke with Littlejohn when she recently visited Rome.
What is the current situation regarding freedom and human rights in China, 25 years since Tiananmen Square?
Tiananmen Square happened in 1989; the one-child policy happened in 1980, so the pro-democracy movement and the one-child policy have been growing in parallel. I would say, in terms of democracy in China, things have actually gotten worse.
Friends of mine I’ve spoken to who were actually at Tiananmen Square at the time tell me the massacre was absolutely beyond anything one could imagine. But at the time, the government allowed people to gather on Tiananmen Square, whereas today there’s no freedom of assembly.
If you go there today, one person with a sign that says “Freedom in China” or anything like that will be immediately detained and whisked off the square.
Some reports suggested China was loosening its one-child policy. Is this true?
There is a misperception that China has loosened its one-child policy. On Jan. 1 of this year, they made a slight adjustment to the policy, so that if one member is an only child, that couple can have a second child. But according to the Chinese Communist Party, this is “no big deal” — that’s a quote from them, from national family-planning officials.
The point is the core of the coercion with which the policy is enforced. So it doesn’t really matter whether the government is to allow one or more children; what matters is that they are telling people how many children they can have and are enforcing that limit coercively. … They did this [minor policy change] 100% for demographic reasons: They see they are entering a demographic winter in China, have a sharply rising elderly population and sharply dwindling younger population, so there’s no way to support the elderly population, and they don’t have the security.
There are at least 37 million more males than females in China today, which is driving sexual slavery. ... So while they have instituted the one-child policy for economic purposes, they have also written their own economic death sentence through the one-child policy. They are willing to tweak it, adjust it, to find some way to somehow get more people in, while maintaining the coercion; keep some kind of a limit where it is one or two children. But there’s always a limit that can be enforced by coercion. Coercion is the core of the policy, not the number of children that are born.
Could you tell us a little about how you came to rescue Anni, the daughter of Zhang Lin?
I found out about Anni from Zhang Lin last April. I got a call from a friend, who’s president of Women’s Rights in China, to say that this little girl Anni had been detained by the Chinese Communist Party overnight. She was denied food, water, blankets. She had been in school and called to the principal’s office, but then she was basically kidnapped by four unidentified men who lied to her, told her they were taking her to see her father, but they were actually taking her to a detention center, where she was detained without food, water or blankets and not knowing where her father was. She was finally returned to her father, and they remained in detention for a total of 24 hours together.
Protests followed, and what happened then? How did you become involved?
At that point, I got the news about Anni and was made aware of it. I was given the opportunity to be on [Chinese] national radio [based in New York] with her and her father [via telephone]. The host said: “You’re a women’s-rights activist in the U.S. Anni is an emerging women’s-rights activist in China. Do you want to speak to each other?” We said, yeah, sure.
I said to Annie: “I’m so impressed with you, your courage and how articulate you are. If you remain pure, humble and true, you can help lead the people to freedom.” I felt this really strong bond with her over this national radio program.
You say Anni is a survivor of China’s one-child policy?
Yes, Anni’s mother was chased by family-planning police and had to hide because they were trying to forcibly abort Anni. I didn’t even know about this when I made the decision to take her into my home that she’s a survivor of the one-child policy.
Can you tell us a little about how she escaped?
She and her father were demonstrating in front of her elementary school in Hefei, Anhui’s provincial capital. They deported them back to their hometown of Bengbu and put them under house arrest; and for months they couldn’t leave the house and were under surveillance. Then they escaped house arrest, became fugitives and were caught, just Anni and him, as the older daughter, Ruli, was in college.
When he was caught, Lin knew he was going back into detention, so he got a message out to me that both he and Anni wanted Anni to come to the U.S. because she couldn’t live a normal life in China. I said: “Where are they going to go? Let me call my extremely awesome husband.” I explained the situation to him, reminding him of Zhang Lin and saying she needs a place to go. So he said, well, she can come and live with us.
Then came the very long and arduous process of trying to get them to the U.S. There are four people currently in detention for helping Anni: her father, who has not been sentenced yet — they are likely to give him a heavy sentence because his original crime had to do with him being involved with pro-democracy protests of Tiananmen Square, and this is the 25th anniversary, so why not make an example out of him? — two other people who were part of the protests in front of the elementary school and someone who gave them shelter, Yao Cheng.
When my husband sent a letter of invitation for them to come and be with us to the U.S., they were brought to Shanghai. They were under surveillance and so gave their cellphones to friends of theirs to take to the mall so police would think they’d gone to the mall. … Yao Cheng was caught and is still in detention. So there are four people still detained for helping Anni.
They [the government] let Anni go, but made it very costly. How could they keep her? She was like the poster child for children of dissidents. [The human-rights activist] Chen Guangcheng went through this, too. This is what the Chinese Communist Party will do.
We learned recently that the sentencing of Zhang Lin, the father of Anni and Ruli, has been delayed by six months. This is the second delay in sentencing since he was tried last December. He has already been in jail for nine months, and he won't even be sentenced for another six months. We wonder if this is due to his involvement with the Tiananmen Square movement, and that he might be getting harsher treatment because of the 25th anniversary.
My opinion is that it’s extremely cowardly: If they cannot silence people by persecuting them directly, they will attempt to silence them by persecuting their children. This is, in my opinion, state-sponsored official child abuse, and Women’s Rights Without Frontiers denounces persecution of children of dissidents, an act which is at once brutal and cowardly and seems like an act of desperation by a regime that is feeling threatened about its legitimacy.
It’s important to reveal this to expose the Chinese government.
Yes, the persecution of children of Chinese dissidents. There are other incidents, but this is typical of what they do, and the word needs to get out in the West about this. This [China] is who the world is kowtowing to because of financial debts. This is a government that will persecute a 10-year-old girl and not let her go to school. She’s done nothing wrong herself, just that her father stood up for freedom in China.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.