Family of missing Chinese scholar speaks of pain and uncertainty



Lifeng Ye, mother of Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who authorities say was kidnapped near a bus stop on campus June 9, sits with her son Xinyang Zhang, right, and Xiaolin Hou, Yingying’s boyfriend, after a news conference at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign, Ill., on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

When Yingying Zhang’s mother learned that her daughter had gone missing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on June 9, she fainted. She could not eat or sleep, and became too weak to work.

The time since only has become more difficult and the family’s hopes have been dashed at every turn: First, the hope Zhang was merely missing, not kidnapped; then, the hope that she would be found safe and unharmed. Then, the hope that her body would be found quickly.

More than two months later, Zhang, a visiting scholar from China, remains missing. Federal authorities say the 26-year-old is presumed dead. Brendt Christensen, a former U of I doctoral candidate living in Champaign, has been charged with kidnapping and pleaded not guilty in federal court last month.


On Tuesday, Zhang’s family members, in an emotional news conference, gathered in this placid college town and gave their most extensive comments on her disappearance. Zhang’s father and her longtime boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, talked of their ordeal.

“This is a very painful process. Our dreams have been shattered,” Hou said afterward in an interview through an interpreter. “We just keep on telling ourselves this is the worst and we cannot really lose any more.”

Hou said that the family was determined to see the investigation through and that they have vowed not to leave the U.S. until they can bring Zhang’s remains home to China for a proper burial.

As Hou spoke, alternating between Mandarin and English, Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye, collapsed into sobs as her son tried earnestly to console her. She did not speak to reporters.

Hou, Zhang’s father and her aunt have been staying in town since shortly after the investigation began, supported in part by donations that have helped pay the family’s living expenses. Zhang’s mother and younger brother arrived in Urbana last month.

“Yingying is a kind, optimistic, diligent and brave girl,” Hou said. “She would not give up on anything or anybody as long as there was a glimmer of hope. So we will never give up on her, either.”

This month, Yingying’s father sent a letter to President Donald Trump on behalf on him and his wife, asking the president to ensure that all efforts were being devoted to finding her. The investigation is being led by the FBI.


“As a loving father to your own children, you can understand what we are going through. Yingying means the world to us,” the Aug. 11 letter from Ronggao Zhang states, which he read in Mandarin. “We fervently request that you direct all available federal law enforcement and investigatory resources be used to find our daughter as soon as possible.”

Zhang, who began her research appointment in April, was going to sign a lease at an apartment building the afternoon of June 9 and unsuccessfully tried to flag down a bus before walking to another stop near West University and North Goodwin avenues.

Shortly after, federal authorities allege that Christensen approached Zhang in his car and lured her inside. Surveillance video from a nearby parking garage captured the exchange where Zhang could be seen speaking to the driver for several moments — though Christensen could not be identified from the footage — before getting into the front passenger seat. The car continued north on Goodwin Avenue.

One of Zhang’s professors reported her missing by that evening, after several calls and texts went unanswered.

The investigation homed in on Christensen after police concluded his was the car seen in the footage. He initially denied leaving his home at all the day Zhang disappeared.

When police questioned him a second time, he said he had been driving on campus, came across an Asian woman looking distressed and offered her a ride she said she was late to her appointment. Christensen said the woman panicked after he made a wrong turn, and he let her out of his car a few blocks from where they met.

Meanwhile, police also searched his car and determined that the area where Zhang would have been sitting had been cleaned in a way to conceal evidence, FBI agents alleged in court documents. Police also searched his phone and found visits to a sadomasochism fetish website with discussion threads on kidnapping fantasies.

The FBI also conducted audio surveillance on Christensen for several days, including when he attended a campus walk and vigil in Zhang’s honor on June 29. There, prosecutors revealed later, Christensen was caught on tape pointing out people in the crowd and describing his “ideal victim.” Other surveillance tapes recorded Christensen allegedly admitting to having kidnapped Zhang, and describing how she fought back as he held her against her will, prosecutors said.

Christensen, 28, was arrested and charged with kidnapping the following day. He is being held in federal custody in Macon County without bail. Police and prosecutors did not reveal the source of the recordings.

The case has rattled this normally quiet campus and sent shockwaves throughout China. About 5,600 Chinese undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled at the University of Illinois in the fall 2016 term, according to university data.

Chinese media outlets consistently have outnumbered English-language reporters, while dozens of students, staff and community members have converged on the Urbana courthouse to get live updates on the case.

Zhang is from the Fujian province in southeast China, between Shanghai and Hong Kong. She received a master’s degree from Peking University in Beijing — likened to Harvard University in terms of prestige — before coming to the U.S. She is the first in her family to go to college.

“We have so many Chinese students studying in the United States and we have a common security interest,” said Hong Lei, Consul General of People’s Republic of China to Chicago. “Parents, families and students naturally are following this case closely. They would like to find out how this happened. They want to know why this crime was committed, how an outstanding student like Yingying could be deceived by a criminal. They would like to draw lessons from this case.”

Christensen’s trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 12 but one of his attorneys, Thomas Bruno, said his defense team plans to apply for a continuance.

Zhang’s family members said there is little they can do but wait and keep appealing for the public’s help at every opportunity. In the meantime, they try whatever they can to cope.

Every day, Hou said, her father walks to his daughter’s old apartment and stays there for hours.

“I never asked him why. But I think this is the only way he has now to cure his wound,” Hou said.

And recently, the family was able to obtain a copy of Zhang’s diary, which authorities found in her apartment. Most was written in Chinese, save for the last line in her final entry.

Written in English:

“Life is too short to be ordinary.”


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