State security police in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui have promised to allow the daughter of a veteran democracy activist to attend school, after the pair made a daring escape to complain about their continuing house arrest to authorities in Beijing.
Dissident Zhang Lin and his 10-year-old daughter, Anni, were at the heart of a campaign earlier this year to allow her to return to her elementary school in the provincial capital, Hefei.
Police clashed with protesters demonstrating on behalf of Anni, who was taken out of school and detained by state security police, before being confined at home under surveillance and denied permission to return.
Zhang and family later relocated to his hometown of Bengbu, but the surveillance continued there, and Anni was still prevented from continuing her schooling, he said.
"Anni and I have been under close surveillance and house arrest, without a shred of freedom," Zhang said in an interview on Wednesday. "I was concerned that my daughter would suffer long-term damage as the result of being in such an environment."
He said he and Anni had found an opportunity to leave without being followed, and taken it, although they were unable to bring along their national ID cards, which are required for many day-to-day transactions in China.
"We had to get a long-distance bus to Nanjing, and we went to a lot of other places," Zhang said.
Zhang said he had narrowly evaded recapture by police while on a detour in the southeastern province of Fujian.
"Things got pretty tense that day, and we nearly had a road accident," Zhang said. "We went to a lot of different places, and I drove through the night, making lots of twists and turns."
Caught in the capital
After Zhang arrived in Beijing, however, police eventually tracked him and Anni down on July 1.
"I was just walking along the street, and a bunch of people blocked my path; one of them I recognized, and the rest were just Beijing police officers, and they said I had to come with them," he said.
"They had placed the entire hotel under surveillance, and they told me I had to take Anni [back home], but I refused," he said. "I said my kid should live a life free from surveillance."
"Anni herself refused to go back with them."
Zhang then made contact with Cui Chunting, a delegate to the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, who arrived at the hotel to back Zhang up in his negotiations with Anhui police.
Zhang and Anni agreed to return to Bengbu on condition that the family would escape retaliatory action, and that Anni would be allowed to attend school once more, he said.
"Cui Chunting isn't just an NPC delegate; she is quite a figure in Beijing circles, and she came rushing over to negotiate with the state security police," Zhang said.
"She told them that, first, they weren't to seek revenge on us, and second, that they weren't to prevent Anni from attending school," he said.
"The state security police in Beijing promised that they would restrain the relevant departments."
In April, more than 30 activists from around the country converged on Hefei in a bid to escort Anni to school, and to protest at Anni's Feb. 27 removal from the city's Hupo Elementary School by police.
Some were set upon by unidentified men near the school gates, while others have volunteered to teach Anni, and staged relay hunger strikes in support of the family.
Police later detained Sun Lin, a journalist who filmed the campaign for the overseas-based news website Boxun.
An online campaign by the rights group Frontline Defenders urged people to write to Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling on him to allow Anni to return to school immediately and unconditionally.
"These measures are not only solely related to Zhang Lin's legitimate human rights activities, but also constitute a direct transgression on the rights of Zhang Anni," the group said in a suggested letter, which it asked supporters to send to Xi.
China's nationwide "stability maintenance" system, which now costs more than the People's Liberation Army, tracks the movements and activities of anyone engaged in political or rights activism across the country.
Under this system, activists and outspoken intellectuals are routinely put under house arrest or other forms of surveillance at politically sensitive times.
Zhang, 50, said on Tuesday that his home had been under tight police surveillance since the detentions of his fellow activists.
A veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Anhui,Zhang has 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 Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Fang Yuan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.