The Story Behind A Widow Who Smuggled to US With Young Daughters

WRIC Jing Zhang  7-01-2023

(Original article


Zhang Yan, a plainly dressed Chinese woman, is not tall and doesn’t wear makeup. Except for a pair of eyes shining with determination, there is nothing special about her. It was such an ordinary mother who brought her two underage daughters, 11 and 13, into the mighty Chinese “Snake Line” army. They were coursing through eight countries in Central and South America, seven of them being smuggled immigrants, overcame obstacles all the way, and finally successfully arrived in the United States. A strong mother and two brave daughters, for freedom without hesitation, wrote a song about a free soul.


On June 27, 2023, Zhang Yan and her two daughters had a picnic with friends in a park in Queens, New York. (Photo: Jing Zhang)


Why did Li Jinhong spend his whole life only pursuing the ideal of democracy and freedom?



June 4 Anti-CCP Elements Are Still Under Control After Released from Prison


Li Jinhong was born in Zhuzhou, Hunan in 1963. He received higher education and was a cadre of Hunan Zixing Industrial and Commercial Bank. He joined the democracy movement during June 4, 1989. Together with his friends, he supported the student movement in Beijing, opposed the government’s suppression of students, and formed a political organization aimed at “politically democratic, economically open, and highly civilized country.” In November 1989, members of the co-founded organization were arrested at the same time. After three months of detention, the five were prosecuted for the crime of “counter-revolutionary organization” and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1 to 8 years. Li Jinhong continued to be persecuted, monitored and harassed after serving his 4-year sentence. He couldn’t go back to his original unit and lived on odd jobs. In 1999 and 2006, he was detained and held in secret. In 2007, introduced by Yu Zhijian, a pro-democracy friend, and like-minded Zhang Yan held a wedding in a local Christian church. Li Jinhong was poor at that time, but Zhang Yan did not dislike him, they loved each other, and later had two lovely daughters.


The first page of the judgment of the counter-revolutionary group in Hunan in 1990.

On the fifth page (last page, five people, including Li Jinhong, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1 to 8 years.


Zhang Yan said: Li Jinhong has been unable to find a stable job, even though he graduated from university, he is versatile and writes in beautiful calligraphy. Home ransacking, threats, warnings, harassment, coercion, and making things difficult for him are commonplace, especially during Chinese New Year holidays, around June 4th, or on politically sensitive days when leaders of Western countries visit.


Zhang Yan recalled: “In 2009, when Chinese New Year was approaching, the first time I dealt with Guoan(national security police), I was pregnant, and the police came to search my house without a search warrant or uniform, and I said: You are breaking into a house illegally. At this time, the police directly threatened Li Jinhong: “Li Jinhong, you have to take good care of your ‘tangke’ (wife in Hunan dialect), otherwise, you won’t know how your ‘tangke’ died.”



The days when Li Jinhong and his wife Zhang Yan were with their children.  (Photo: Zhang Yan)


Li Jinhong was teaching his girls to do their homework. (Video: Zhang Yan)



“Because Li Jinhong has been threatened by the national security, he knows they can do anything, so he didn’t tell me some things later. He said: If you don’t know, then you are the safest. If you know, You are not safe anymore,” Zhang Yan said. Since then, Li Jinhong has not told Zhang Yan about his persecution.


In 2011, Li Jinhong’s eldest daughter was ill and did not have enough money for medical treatment. After learning about it, overseas pro-democracy activists donated 1,000 US dollars (about 6,836 yuan) through Sun Liyong in Australia as the child’s medical subsidy. However, the National Security Bureau of Zhuzhou City, Hunan Province, stated: This medical donation was confiscated as bail because Li Jinhong was “suspected of colluding confession”. They even directly withdraw the remittance from the local bank that cooperates with Western Union, without Li Jinhong’s knowledge or consent. The total amount of donations confiscated by the State Security + deposits of Li Jinhong’s family is 8,883 RMB (see the receipt below).


On December 3, 2019, his friend Chen Xuejin, who founded the organization with Li Jinhong and was sentenced, died of illness. Chen Xuejin was also under surveillance for a long time, depressed and unhappy. Zhang Yan recalled: “When Li Jinhong heard the news of Chen Xuejin’s death, he immediately prepared to go to the funeral, but Hunan Zhuzhou State Security prevented him from attending the funeral and threatened him with the safety of Li Jinhong’s children. The State Security said, “Li Jinhong, your two cubs Zai (meaning 2 daughters) is studying in XX Primary School in Zhuzhou, your Zai Zai is still very young!” Li Jinhong cried when he heard this, he knew that the national security would threaten him with his child. He also knew that they really can do anything.”


After Li Jinhong was released from prison, he was detained many times. The picture shows the notice of Li Jinhong’s bail pending trial in 2011.


Li Jinhong said to his wife Zhang Yan: “We already have two children. I will disappear at any time, but at least you must be safe. If you are not safe, the children will be left alone.”


Zhang Yan recalled: Later, Li Jinhong found a job as a medical cleaner in the hospital, disposing of the medical waste used by the hospital every day. Not long before my husband died in a car accident in 2020, that is, when the epidemic broke out in Wuhan and the city was closed. Dr. Li Wenliang passed away. My husband once said to me: Something big may happen…. Maybe I’m going to die. One of us has to survive to take care of the kids…. Soon, a car accident happened really bizarrely.



Li Jinhong passed away suddenly in 2020. Overseas pro-democracy activists issued scribes to commemorate Li Jinhong.


Zhang Yan suspected her husband’s car accident was unusual


There are many doubts about Li Jinhong’s death in a bizarre car accident. For example, the police still have no speed record of the other party’s driving speed at the time of the accident, and three of the four surveillance cameras near the community where the incident occurred were broken. The only camera that was not damaged was blocked by several buses. We couldn’t see the accident. We could only see that after the accident, someone came over and picked up Li Jinhong who had been knocked down on the ground, trying to pick him up. Zhang Yan, who is a nurse and has a doctor’s qualification certificate, asked for an autopsy to find out the real cause of her husband’s death, but none of the relevant autopsy units in the city were willing to accept Zhang Yan’s request.


Zhang Yan and her two daughters, an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, lost their husband and father in an instant. One can imagine the blow they endured. In the days before Li Jinhong found this job, Zhang Yan went out to work, and his two daughters were both diapered, fed, cleaned, and sent to school… The eldest daughter saw her motionless father in the hospital morgue, crying and beating her father’s feet: Aren’t you our good dad? Why did our dad leave us? Why do you say nothing! You promised to be with us forever, why did you leave alone and ignore us?


Like Chen Xuejin, his friend in the same case, Li Jinhong’s funeral was not allowed to other friends. Jiang Fuxing, a friend of the “counter-revolutionary co-case” who was also in prison, wanted to come to see Li Jinhong for the last time, but was strongly blocked by the police and state security. Control not going out at home. Zhang Yan’s older brother, Zhang Yonghong, does his best to help his sister deal with affairs, big and small. On the day of the funeral, Zhang Yonghong’s mobile phone was taken away by state security personnel, and the funeral video he recorded was forcibly deleted. Zhang Yonghong stood up to argue with the National Security Bureau, but was insulted and kicked on the spot.


Next, multiple government departments intervened and asked Zhang Yan to reach an agreement with the perpetrator as soon as possible so that the body could be cremated as soon as possible. Zhang Yan wanted to make an autopsy report to find out the real cause of her husband’s death. However, the State Security, Public Security, and Political and Legal Offices obstructed her. They used Li Jinhong’s mother’s death to pressure Zhang Yan to cremate Li Jinhong as soon as possible. They also threatened Zhang Yan’s nephew, who had passed the bar exam, whether he could get a lawyer’s license. Zhang Yan was physically and mentally exhausted, and finally agreed to cremate Li Jinhong, and later reached a compensation agreement. The party responsible for the accident compensated for medical expenses, and his work unit also paid compensation for work-related accidents because of Li Jinhong’s car accident on the way to work. A total of about 1.7 million RMB (about 240,000 US dollars), after deducting medical expenses, burial, legal fees, etc., there is not much left.


With the death of Li Jinhong, another “unstable factor” identified by the government has disappeared, and the national security personnel can breathe a sigh of relief.


The Widow of June 4th  “Snake Line” with her daughters


At the beginning of 2023, seeing a large number of videos and pictures on Douyin and WeChat, Zhang Yan was thinking about the future of her children, and she had the idea of ​​going far away to a foreign country. She thought that this could also fulfill her husband Li Jinhong’s dream of freedom. Zhang Yan discussed it with her daughters, and they all agreed that it was very good, and the two daughters were willing to try it bravely. With the help and support of her elder brother, Zhang Yan decided to use the death compensation of the child’s father to pave the way for the children to a free country. No matter how torturous and bumpy the road ahead is, it is better than the infinite sadness and bullying of the remaining family in China. So Zhang Yan organized all the documents and photos of her husband into her mobile phone. One day in early April 2023, the two daughters, accompanied by their mother and uncle, boarded a plane from Hong Kong to Guatemala, Central and South America, and started their official journey of “Snake Line”.


At start, Zhang Yan, her brother and their two daughters entered Hong Kong by high-speed rail, and then left China by plane. They flew west to Turkey, then flew across the Atlantic Ocean, and landed in Quito, Ecuador, Central and South America. The next day they went all the way north non-stop, took a bus, took a boat, walked through the sweltering Amazon jungle, turned over steep cliffs and barren wilderness, and crossed 8 countries in a row, starting from Ecuador, an equatorial country on the west coast of South America. They passed through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico for a whole month, and finally entered the state of Texas bordering the United States and Mexico.



Zhang Yan’s eldest daughter suffers from toe inflammation, and she still struggles to climb the steep mountain. (Videos from Zhang Yan)


Taking the big bus is the most comfortable journey on the way. (Picture from Zhang Yan)


Another family who came along the line also had a younger son playing with Zhang Yan’s daughter. (Picture from Zhang Yan)



Zhang Yan, her elder brother, and her two underage daughters finally managed to come to the long-awaited New York. They rented in Flushing, a Chinese-dominant community, and settled down initially. But it is not easy to start a new life in a new country. Even if the line is successfully traveled, there will be problems such as identity issues, children’s schooling, work, and life that have yet to be completely resolved. In a new and unfamiliar life, Zhang Yan is facing another challenge. But she felt relieved, isn’t this the democratic and liberty that her husband Li Jinhong wanted to pursue all his life? She brought her two daughters to this free city, and she helped him do it! What is even more gratifying is that she helped her two lovely daughters build a bridge to freedom. Live, study and work.


Yes, soon, the family has free medical insurance, and the children have arranged for schools, where they will take free English tutoring classes throughout the summer to improve their English communication skills after school starts in September. Of course, school and lunch are free, which can relieve a large part of Zhang Yan’s financial pressure.


Zhang Yan usually cooks and does housework at home, and she actively participates in the activities of pro-democracy and human rights groups. The first time she yelled “Take down the Chinese Communist Party!” loudly on June 4th this year, she was so excited that she burst into tears. She finally yelled out the words she had kept in her heart for many years for her unjustly killed husband. When she took her children to Central Park in New York to lay flowers for Liu Xiaobo and Li Wenliang’s bench commemorative plaques, Zhang Yan had a lot of emotions that day.


Zhang Yan took her two daughters to the Liu Xiaobo and Li Wenliang Memorial Bench in Central Park, New York. (Photo: Jing Zhang)


It was sunny in July, and on the way home after an event in New York’s Central Park, Jing Zhang and Zhang Yan’s mother had dinner at Wendy’s, a fast food restaurant. When it comes to the taste of the food, the two daughters said in unison: Dad cooks the best food. The eldest daughter said that Dad can do anything. When the two girls mentioned their father, there was a cheerful and innocent smile on their faces, but they soon showed a solemn expression. It is not difficult to see that the children’s longing for their father is reflected on their faces. After all, their mother go to work, and their father take care of them at home for years, accompanying them through childhood. Now that the good days are here, but there is no father. When Lunar Year is here, every family member is gathered but not father, how can the pain in the children’s hearts go away!


America is the hope of children, and children are the hope of parents. Zhang Yan and her daughters can live a free and dignified life, which is the ideal life that Li Jinhong, a husband and father, has been pursuing since 1989. Zhang Yan said, “I believe that his spirit in heaven will guard the orphans and widows, watching the children with comfort as they grow up healthily”. Zhang Yan is full of confidence in her new life. “The United States is really good and so humane. We came here without paying a penny for the United States. We received many free services without doing any work and benefits. Really, thank you so much America.”


Being grateful is an important quality of goodness in human nature. May Zhang Yan and her two daughters be safe and happy, and have a bright future.


On June 27, 2023, Zhang Yan and her two daughters had a picnic with friends in a park in Queens, New York. (Photo: Jing Zhang)