In the video, a 13-year-old girl’s fingers fly over the piano keys. She’s playing Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 5, full of joy. It seems from the expressive playing she’s lived a life along the same cheerful theme.
But the girl is Anni Zhang, daughter of imprisoned Chinese dissident Zhang Lin. Faced with a future of no education and life in a Chinese state-run orphanage, Anni endured inhumane treatment by the Chinese government before fleeing to America, leaving behind language and family alike.
Today, Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, and her husband Robert, are raising Anni as their own daughter. Littlejohn stated, “We are so proud of Anni. She is flourishing, both as a pianist and as a top student. Her father, Zhang Lin, was trained as a nuclear physicist, and Anni has inherited his strength in math and science. Her story is an example for all those who struggle against the odds. Through our help and her own hard work, Anni is a witness to the hope of a new beginning and to the beauty, brilliance and infinite value of Chinese girls.”
In February, Anni’s video was chosen as winner of an international competition for a chance to perform in New York’s Carnegie Hall later this month. Incredibly, Anni achieved such recognition despite the fact that she had only been playing piano for two years when she competed.
“I never thought I would make it to Carnegie Hall, but with help from my American parents (Reggie Littlejohn and her husband, Robert), my teacher (Matt Wang), and God, I made it,” she said.
And ‘made it’ she has, in more ways than one: according to Chinese law, Anni should not only have stayed in China, but she never should have lived at all.
Anni was born the second daughter in her family in violation of the One Child (now Two Child) Policy, meaning Anni’s family had to endure persecution to keep their daughter. Family Planning Police came daily to pressure Anni’s mother to abort her. Anni’s father was able to get permission for Anni’s birth only after a long and difficult struggle.
Although Anni’s parents never thought of aborting her, countless others in her generation have succumbed to forced abortion in China under such circumstances. Anni could easily have been one of the 400 million lives “prevented” by China’s One (now Two) Child Policy of coercive population control. Or she could have been selectively aborted because she is a girl, as happens to so many second daughters in China.
Anni was dubbed “China’s youngest prisoner of conscience” when, in retaliation for her father’s work protesting the Communist Party, she was kidnapped out of school and detained overnight, enduring hours without food, water or a toilet. She was ten years old at the time.
She and her father Zhang Lin were later kept under house arrest without leave for Anni to go to school. Her father was only recently released from in Anhui Province for defending Anni’s rights.
In 2013, Zhang Lin asked Reggie Littlejohn to help him get Anni out of China because she could not lead a normal life there.
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Littlejohn and her husband felt God was calling them to open their home and welcome Anni into their family, becoming her American parents. Anni and her older sister Ruli arrived in America in 2013 with help from many others, including U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, Jing Zhang, president of Women’s Rights in China, and brave activists in China, several of whom suffered lengthy detentions and even torture.
But such sacrifices have not been in vain. Today, Anni has thrown herself into the study of English, of which she had no previous knowledge, and is a straight-A student.
Anni says she owes thanks to God for winning the international competition.
“God did a total miracle, because I never could have made it without His help,” she said. “Winning the competition to play in Carnegie Hall was 1% me and 99% God.”
Littlejohn stated, “Anni’s performance at Carnegie Hall will be one of the highlights of her life, and of mine. I never dreamed I would have a Chinese daughter – much less one as talented as Anni. But it will be a bitter-sweet occasion, because her father will not be there to share it.”
Zhang Lin was released from prison on September 9, 2016 and has applied several times to the Chinese government for a passport. Each time, his application has been denied, even though he told the authorities that he urgently needs a passport to come to the United States to see his daughter perform at Carnegie Hall.
“The fact that the Chinese government refuses to give Zhang Lin a passport under these circumstances underscores their inhumanity. It is pointless and cruel that they are depriving Zhang Lin and Anni of the joy of his attendance at her Carnegie Hall performance.”
Anni said, “I miss my father and wish he could be with me at Carnegie Hall.”