The Zhang Yingying Case, Six Years On
“When can we go back to the U.S. to look for her again?”
Zhang Ronggao thinks of little else than finding his daughter, Zhang Yingying. A 27-year-old visiting scholar at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Yingying was abducted at a bus stop and killed on June 9, 2017. Her remains were never recovered.
Every time the distraught father speaks with Hou Xiaolin, who was Yingying’s fiance, he will ask him when they can return to the United States to continue their search for answers.
As Ronggao and his wife don’t speak English and have hardly ever left Nanping, their native city in the southern province of Fujian, let alone gone overseas, Xiaolin has twice accompanied them on visits to the U.S. He has been working on arrangements for a third trip later this year in the hope of finding some closure.
Xiaolin says he struggles to look back on the past six years. From the moment he learned of his fiancee’s disappearance, to the revelation that she was dead, and then the anguish of not being able to find her body, he has no idea how he has survived the anguish. And he cannot even imagine her parents’ suffering.
In February, Xiaolin traveled from his home in Beijing to Nanping to visit Yingying’s parents, and he was pleased to see that Ronggao had recently started selling goods through livestreaming. Though a surprising career move — and a controversial one for some people — he feels it has helped bring the couple hope, stability, and a small degree of respite from their grief.
‘Least charismatic livestreamer ever’
Ronggao’s performances during his livestreams would be best described as subdued. Even when he has something to sell, he’s a man of few words. Most of the time, he will simply read out a product’s name and offer a handful of adjectives. Directly in front of him is a whiteboard on which relatives write out the product information, which constitutes the bulk of his sales pitch.
Next to him, his wife Ye Lifeng sits silently, ashen-faced; sometimes she even dozes off. Having never learned to read, she’s incapable of understanding the product descriptions or the comments left by the livestream viewers.
Initially, they would bring up Yingying during their recordings. But Lifeng said that every time she heard her daughter’s name her heart would pang and tears would stream down her face. On some occasions she became so upset they had to cut the livestream short.
After that, the couple decided not to mention their daughter or respond to any viewers’ questions about the case, preferring instead to focus on the products.
The recording studio they use occupies a few square meters in a commercial complex about a kilometer from their home. It costs just over 500 yuan ($69) a month to rent. They originally livestreamed from their house but relocated in May after realizing they needed somewhere quieter.
People had begun advising them to get into livestreaming as early as the winter of 2017, when they had only just returned from their first trip to the U.S. Ronggao used to say he was too uncultured and inarticulate for the job. Back then, he worked at a power station earning about 2,000 yuan a month, and Lifeng was a full-time housewife.
However, now in his late 50s, Ronggao has been thinking about retirement, and about the shortfall in his annual social insurance contributions that could affect his state pension. He started to feel anxious about the family making ends meet without a steady income. In the spring of 2022, he decided to try his hand at selling through Douyin, the short-video platform known internationally as TikTok. And at the beginning of this year, he began to livestream in the evenings after finishing his work at the power station, starting at 7 p.m. and finishing as late as 11 p.m., with only a short break in between.
Ronggao and Lifeng initially asked their son Zhang Xinyang to help with uploading merchandise to their profile, and to film and edit videos, but he refused. Ronggao says that some people have accused the couple of “eating steamed buns soaked in human blood” — a common expression coined by Lu Xun in 1919 that’s used to refer to people who capitalize on a tragedy. Lifeng says that their son declined to get involved precisely because he didn’t want to deal with such accusations. Instead, they turned to a relative for help.
The couple say that making a living through livestreaming has not been easy. On Jan. 16, after recording his first livestream, Ronggao immediately sent out a short video apologizing to his followers. “Sorry, it was my first time and I was so nervous,” he told them.
Despite having now streamed dozens of times, he’s still worried about saying the wrong thing. He calls himself “the least charismatic livestreamer ever.”
The couple’s Douyin profile features more than 100 products, mostly household sundries that cost only a few yuan each, such as garbage bags and disposable wipes. Ronggao figures that, since these are things that everyone uses, they should be easy to sell. For a time, merchants would often reach out to ask about selling their goods on the couple’s livestream. They also sent samples, which Ronggao and his wife carefully tested before deciding whether to stock them.
As their business has slowly taken off, the couple say they have regained a sense of hope in the future, and they feel that their success would have made Yingying happy. Ronggao says that it’s a comfort to him that many people still remember his daughter.
Yet there are others who are still unaware. From time to time, new viewers will tune in and, upon seeing the couple’s exhausted and sullen faces, will ask out of confusion, “What happened to these guys? Why are they so sad on their own livestream?”
Xiaolin says that kind of sorrow is hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it personally. Late at night, once the cameras are finally switched off, Lifeng falls asleep listening to a recording of Yingying singing. When she wakes up at three or four in the morning, she scrolls on her phone for her daughter’s videos and photos. Ronggao will also sometimes get up in the middle of the night and sleep in Yingying’s childhood bedroom.
Ronggao says he has never dared tell his wife what their daughter experienced in her final moments. That would be too painful for either of them to bear. Lifeng often wonders if their daughter is still alive, if she somehow was tricked into going to some remote location. Once, she found a photo of a woman who looked like Yingying online and sent it to Xiaolin to ask if he could help locate the woman and confirm it’s not her daughter.
In recent years, the two parents have longed to continue their search for Yingying. In mid-June, a follower of their livestream commented, “We know you’re doing this so that you can afford to see your daughter in the United States.”
The U.S. was once the object of hatred for Ronggao and his wife, somewhere to direct their anger. After all, they thought, would their daughter have met with such a tragic fate had she not crossed the Pacific Ocean and gone elsewhere?
However, after spending about seven months there with Xiaolin, spread over 2017 and 2019, that changed. The couple say they sensed great compassion from the locals, and gradually they began to feel that what happened to Yingying was not the fault of the U.S. — the only person to blame was her killer.
In 2018, more than a year after Yingying’s death, Wang Zhidong, a Chicago attorney hired by the family, sent Xiaolin an email in which he explained how Yingying’s ordeal likely unfolded, based on the deductions of the police department and the U.S. attorney’s office. At the time, Xiaolin was completing his Ph.D. at Peking University in Beijing. For a month after receiving the email, he was plagued day and night by horrific visions of the details of the murder. With no one to confide in, he endured the agony alone in his dorm room.
He recalls the day Yingying left for the U.S., on April 24, 2017. He got up at four that morning and took a taxi over to her dormitory at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany to help her pack. They had already decided that they would register their marriage upon her return to China in the fall. Later, he accompanied her to the airport. It would be the last time he’d ever see her.
In the summer of 2019, Champaign resident Brendt Allen Christensen was found guilty of abducting Yingying and killing her at his apartment. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Yingying’s parents and her fiance were in court to witness the sentencing. When it was announced, Xiaolin recalls that Christensen broke into a weird smile. “I’ll never forget that smile,” he says.
Years later, Ronggao also remains indignant about the killer’s complete lack of remorse. “He didn’t even say sorry,” he says. It was only during the trial that he learned the details of his daughter’s murder, and throughout this chilling summation, he remembers that Christensen didn’t so much as glance in his direction.
All the more unbearable is the fact that Yingying’s body has never been recovered. By the time Christensen’s lawyer finally revealed to the U.S. attorney the likely whereabouts of her remains, a private landfill one county over, they would have been buried deep under almost 10 meters of trash.
Xiaolin says that he and Lifeng had hoped for the death penalty for Christensen and civil compensation — but more than anything, they just wanted to bring Yingying home. Yet all these hopes have amounted to nothing.
In 2019, before returning to China, her parents and fiance placed Yingying’s clothes in a box and buried them in a memorial garden not far from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “We all know the case is closed, but until they find her body and bring her home, her parents will never be able to gain closure,” says Xiaolin.
Six years on, he still often thinks of Yingying and vividly remembers the days when they would read together, chat endlessly, and go shopping. To realize one of Yingying’s unfulfilled ambitions, he taught disadvantaged children for two years in Meizhou, Guangdong province. He has even sworn to treat her parents as his own — to keep them company and care for them. But Xiaolin feels that, since completing his Ph.D. and starting work at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, his professional life has prevented him from fully respecting that promise.
When he visited Nanping in February, he was glad to see that Ronggao and Lifeng had begun livestreaming. “They’ve put a lot of effort into that, because they know it’s what she would have wanted,” he says. At the same time, he has also warned them that the internet is a double-edged sword. It’s not all praise and encouragement — there’s also speculation, accusations, and even abuse, none of which they should take to heart.
Ronggao doesn’t take the hateful comments as personally as he used to. What hurt him most was when, a few years ago, people claimed that he wanted to immigrate to the U.S. and asked him how much he had received in damages there. “I didn’t get a cent out of this, not from the killer or from the university,” he says.
Slow march forward
Xiaolin thinks the reason Yingying’s case attracted so much public attention could be because many people saw themselves in her. She was an ordinary girl, like many young people in China, who grew up in the countryside and whose parents couldn’t offer her concrete advice for the future. Yet on the other hand, she was anything but ordinary — by working hard she had graduated first in her class from Sun Yat-sen University, got a free ride to Peking University for her master’s degree, and later went abroad to study for her Ph.D.
She was her parents’ pride and joy. Not only did she maintain excellent grades in school, she was also mature, considerate, and dutiful. She was the glue that held her family together; she strived to make their lives better. Now that she’s gone, a lot of the warmth has been sucked out of their home.
Since Yingying’s death, her younger brother Xinyang has become increasingly quiet. His WeChat username still reads 2017/6/9, the date she disappeared. He’s three years younger than Yingying. After dropping out of middle school, he moved to the southern province of Guangdong to become a jade sculptor. He later returned home, where he sold mobile phones and worked as a cook. He is now a contract worker at a company where he often works night shifts, making about 2,000 yuan a month.
He rarely expresses his feelings, although his mother Lifeng knows that he has been hit hard by the loss of his sister. In 2019, Xinyang’s wife gave birth to their son. Lifeng says that his wife had been reluctant to have children, but did so to provide hope for the family.
The arrival of a grandchild has brought joy to an otherwise cheerless home. Lifeng and Ronggao momentarily forgot their sorrow, and for the first time in a long time, smiles appeared on their faces. Ronggao continued to work while Lifeng took care of their grandchild and the housework. However, upon realizing that their daughter could never be replaced, they soon slipped back into misery.
Every time Lifeng is reminded of her daughter, she is overcome with sadness. At times, she can’t help but scream or break things to vent her emotions. “After I let off steam, I feel a little better,” she says. “But it scares my grandson to death. He told his father that his grandma just punched a hole in a stool.” It took Xinyang urging her to not break things in front of his child for Lifeng to realize the effect her behavior was having on the boy.
A few times since then, her grandson has noticed tears in her eyes and asked her why she’s crying. “I just tell him that grandma has sand in her eye.”
Xiaolin senses that Xinyang is continually maturing. When his parents sink into despair, he has no choice but to soak up their emotions. Yet not once has he complained — in his own way, he strives to make things better for those around him.
Ronggao and Lifeng have thought about selling their house and leaving to lead a peaceful existence in the countryside of Nanping. But they realize that their son’s family will need them for some time to come.
Their grandson began preschool this year, and the couple are anxious about whether their son can support his family. Those fears make Lifeng miss her daughter even more. Whenever their family experienced hardship, she would talk as if she had the future in her hands. “Don’t worry, you have me,” she would say.
In April, the family received a visit from Jiang Qiulian, whose daughter, Jiang Ge, was murdered while studying in Japan, a case that also made international headlines. “I lost my daughter and know how painful that is,” she told them. “I don’t have any advice to offer, but you have to keep going.”
In the days that followed, Lifeng says that she didn’t cry as much — but it wasn’t long before she plunged back into despondency. Though she admires the determination of Qiulian and wants to learn from her, she admits she doesn’t know how to become a stronger person.
In recent years, every time Lifeng has spoken to Xiaolin on the phone, she has encouraged him to get married and have children while he’s young. When he went to Nanping this year, he revealed to them that he had found a girlfriend and plans to introduce her to them next time he visits. For Lifeng, it was a bittersweet revelation.
Xiaolin says that he doesn’t know what is best — he doesn’t want them to worry about him, but also he doesn’t want to upset them by moving on.
The loss of their daughter has deprived the couple of almost any hope, and no one can offer a solution to their grief. Xiaolin’s plan is to take them to the U.S. again this year to look for Yingying in the hope that, if they can finally find her body, it will allow them to move on.
“Maybe we won’t be able to find Yingying,” he says, “but I think that the process itself is more meaningful than the result.”
Reported by Ming Que, He Kai, and Liu Jingwen.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Ni and Craig McIntosh.
(Header image: Zhang Ronggao (foreground) with a memorial photo of his daughter, Zhang Yingying, Nanping, Fujian province, June 2023. He Kai/The Paper)