BEIJING -- Dozens of Chinese rights lawyers and citizens have flocked to an eastern city this week to protest an elementary school for preventing the 10-year-old daughter of an activist from returning to class.

Supporters have gathered in the past few days in Hefei city to stage hunger strikes in front of Hupo Elementary School and hold makeshift classes for Zhang Anni, daughter of democracy activist Zhang Lin, at a nearby square.

The protesters are urging the school to allow Anni to resume lessons, saying the child should not be denied an education because of her father's activism.

The outcry underscores public anger over social injustice and an increasing willingness among citizens to openly reject China's long-held practice of extending the punishment of government critics to their family members, including their children. Authorities routinely harass the relatives of activists and dissidents to pressure them into cooperating.

"I was shocked to learn that she should be implicated by her father and deprived of an education," said Kang Suping, one of the protesters who traveled to Hefei and staged a hunger strike Friday. "It's unthinkable that it should happen today."

The activist, Zhang, said four unidentified men took Anni from her school on Feb. 27 as authorities forced him and his daughter to temporarily return to their hometown while China held legislative meetings to install the country's new leadership, a time when security was tightened nationwide.

Zhang participated in 1989 student-led democracy protests in his hometown of Bengbu in Anhui province. He has been jailed four times, most recently in 2005 for inciting to subvert state power, a vaguely worded charge often used to punish critics.

Zhang said he and his daughter returned to Hefei on Sunday but the school refused to readmit Anni and its principal told him they were worried they could not guarantee her safety.

Since Monday, about 50 lawyers and another 200 citizens have come to Hefei to lend legal and moral support, Zhang said.

A letter written on behalf of Anni by a supporter has been circulated online. It is addressed to Peng Liyuan, the popular wife of new Chinese President Xi Jinping, and said: "Grandma Peng, I very much want to go back to school to study. Can you and Grandpa Xi please tell the police and teachers to allow me back to school?"

Zhang said the statement – though not written by Anni – reflected his daughter's desire.

Calls to the Hupo school and the municipal education bureau were unanswered, and a man who answered the call at the local police station said he was not aware of the issue. The man did not provide his name, which is customary with low-ranking government employees.

In China, the children of activists routinely fall victim to the authorities' persecution of their parents. The son of blind activist Chen Guangcheng was forced to live separately from his parents in order to go to school, and Chen's daughter was able to attend school only after demands by sympathetic fellow citizens who have made repeated trips to Chen's village.

Other dissidents whose families have come under pressure by Chinese authorities echoed the public outcry.

"There should be no question that children's rights should be protected," said Beijing-based activist Hu Jia, whose wife and child were frequently placed under surveillance and house arrest until they moved to Hong Kong recently. "No government can deprive a child of the rights for education."

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