The Chilling Murder of a Chinese Student on a US Campus, and Why Justice Is Elusive

Death penalty or life in prison: What if neither leads to justice?

Facebook reminds me that I have a “memory” from four years ago. “My mother who lives in China believes that criminal suspects should be tortured till they confess,” my 2017 self wrote,  “... that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is a ‘frightening flaw’ of the U.S. justice system.” 

The post concluded with a hashtag, “#help.”


I read the words now and am startled by the casual cruelty. That summer was a particularly low point in my strained relationship with my mother, and I had turned to social media for validation of my moral superiority. Friends offered up advice in the comments below. One of them, a law student, noted that the presumption of innocence is a first principle and “a literally foundational American value.”

My friends meant well. Most of them would not have known the context behind my post. Weeks before, a 26-year-old visiting scholar from China went missing on the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Her name was Yingying Zhang. At the time of my disagreement with my mother, a former Ph.D. candidate in physics at the same university had been apprehended and charged with the kidnapping and death of Yingying. The suspect, Brendt Christensen, pleaded not guilty and refused to give up information. He was convicted two years later. Yingying’s body has never been found. 

I’m one year older than Yingying. Like her, I had grown up in a provincial city in China and clung to academic excellence as the only way out. I too came to the U.S. for my Ph.D., and studied at the University of Chicago, a two-hour drive from UIUC, where many of my colleagues and friends work. Yingying majored in environmental engineering. I pursued physics, the same discipline as her killer. 


In my proximity to both the victim and the perpetrator, I’ve felt, however presumptuously, a particular responsibility: to bear witness to the case as it unfolded, and to try to wring some sense out of this senseless tragedy. After the trial ended and public attention moved on, Yingying’s disappearance has stayed with me like a needle floating in my veins. On most days, it’s barely noticeable; then suddenly, the sharp end declares its piercing presence. 

A new documentary, Finding Yingying, premiered at film festivals last year to critical acclaim and is now available on streaming platforms. Directed by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, it’s a tender, intimate portrayal of a promising life cut short, a family’s harrowing search for their beloved daughter on a foreign land, and their unrelenting quest for justice. 

I saw the film for the first time in the fall of 2020, after a summer of protests for Black lives was met with raging police brutality. I watched it again this spring, when haunting images from the mass shooting in Atlanta were still in the news, and every day seemed to bring fresh reports of harassment or assault against people who look like me. Amidst a global pandemic caricatured as a product of Asian pathology, my birth country has descended further down the abyss of authoritarianism, my adopted home teeters on the brink of fascism, and relations between the two superpowers are at their lowest point in decades. I’ve never felt as acutely aware of my identity as a Chinese woman in the U.S. My body is a constant reminder of the many ways society renders it vulnerable. 


Revisiting Yingying’s story at this moment is not only relevant, but also necessary. Her death was not random. Her life was swallowed by the dark currents of race, gender, and border politics. The same power structures undergird the institutions tasked with holding her killer accountable. Every person deserves safety, but when does justice bleed into vengeance, and how may our desires for protection embolden the systems that harm us? 

Photos of Yingying Zhang on a tree on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Ill. Photo: Stephen Haas/The News-Gazette via AP

Photos of Yingying Zhang on a tree on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Ill. Photo: Stephen Haas/The News-Gazette via AP

“Practice English speaking: 20 minutes.

Jogging: 30 minutes. 6:00 - 6:30.

Study: 40 minutes.

Read paper (new): 30 minutes.

Breakfast: 20 minutes.

March on!”

This is the last entry in Yingying’s journal. Dated June 1, 2017, it concludes with a line in English, “Life is too short to be ordinary!” 

Born to a working-class family in the southern city of Nanping, Yingying received her master’s degree from Peking University and worked as a research assistant at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. She loved to sing and was part of a band called “Cute Horse.” She arrived in the U.S. that April as a visiting scholar, her first time living abroad, and had planned to enroll in the Ph.D. program at UIUC that fall. 

On Friday, June 9, Yingying left the office during lunch hour to sign a lease for a new apartment across town. In a series of surveillance videos—UIUC has more than 2,000 cameras on campus—she gets on a bus. She gets off the bus. She runs after another bus but narrowly misses it. She stands by the bus stop beneath a tree. She is wearing a gray baseball cap, a white jacket, and jeans. 


A black sedan circles around the block and stops in front of her. She walks over and leans in the passenger side window. A minute later she gets in the car and it drives off. Her phone was disabled moments later. Yingying never made it to the leasing office. That evening, unable to reach her, Yingying’s Chinese colleagues reported her missing to the police. 

With over 6,000 Chinese students, accounting for 12 percent of its student body, UIUC is home to the largest Chinese community among U.S. universities. Yingying’s disappearance quickly made headlines on both sides of the Pacific. Four days after the news broke, a post went viral on Chinese social media, “If the Yingying Zhang case took place in China, with attention from the entire country, what’s the probability that it would be solved within 48 hours?”

Many in the comment section praised the efficiency of Chinese police and the capabilities of the country’s Skynet surveillance system. Several lamented that while foreigners in China are showered with privileges, Chinese people overseas endure second-class status. One popular response claimed that “the situation would have been better” had Yingying been “Black, Hispanic, or Muslim” as these minority groups wield more political power in the U.S. than Asians, especially in a blue state like Illinois. 


The black sedan that picked up Yingying was quickly identified as belonging to one Brendt Christensen. The Wisconsin native had just graduated from UIUC with a master’s degree in physics, after deciding that a Ph.D. was not for him. He was arrested on June 30, his 28th birthday. Yingying was still missing. 

As the case progressed, public discourse in China shifted from critiquing the skills of U.S. law enforcement to questioning the logic of its justice system. Rights of a criminal suspect were seen as obtuse hurdles inhibiting a swift conviction. China Central Television ran a feature: The Terrifying Right to Remain Silent—60 Days after Yingying Zhang’s Disappearance.

My mother forwarded many of these reports to me. In a flurry of anguished messages, she told me to stop wearing high-heels so I could run faster in case of danger. She called Christensen a demon. “He does not have to be beaten,” my mother wrote. “But he can be interrogated day and night until he confesses.” 

Three days before Christensen’s arrest, the Chinese government had just issued new rules aimed at curbing police abuse. While the country’s Criminal Procedure Law forbids extorting confessions or collecting evidence by illegal means, the regulations contain many loopholes and are poorly enforced. Torture during detention is commonplace in China. I was furious at my mother, who appeared oblivious to the cruelty and repeatedly defended the inhumane practice. In a string of angry messages, I picked apart her arguments and refuted them one by one.  


But I also knew the real point of tension between us in relation to this case had nothing to do with criminal procedure. I pretended that our discussion was an academic exercise because I could not bear the thought that in the fragile mind of my mother, who had raised me as a young widow, Yingying was me and I was her. From as far as I could remember, my mother’s fervid fear of my sudden vanishing filled the air around her. She refused to let me out of her sight, and I refused her suffocating love by leaving China as soon as I could. 

My mother’s idea of a safe space shifted with my departure, from the immediacy of our home to the territorial bounds of a homeland. What happened to Yingying could never have happened in China, she insisted, echoing the talking points on state media that U.S. authorities were only paying attention to the case because China is strong. Yingying’s disappearance affirmed my mother’s long-held belief that a foreign country is too dangerous for a Chinese woman like me. By defending features in the U.S. judicial process, I was in fact defending the life I had worked so hard to achieve. 

Two months after Yingying went missing, her mother and younger brother arrived in the U.S. As seen about halfway through the film, the humble woman from Nanping weeps in the backseat of a car. The drive from the airport is the longest distance in the world.


“Can we find that guy’s mother?” she asks. “We are both mothers. We share the same feelings. 

“She knows how hard it is to raise a child. Her son should say where my daughter is.”

Lifeng Ye, the mother of Yingying Zhang, cries out in grief as her husband Ronggao Zhang, far left, addresses the media after a jury found Brendt Christensen guilty of her murder. Photo: Matt Dayhoff/Journal Star via AP

Lifeng Ye, the mother of Yingying Zhang, cries out in grief as her husband Ronggao Zhang, far left, addresses the media after a jury found Brendt Christensen guilty of her murder. Photo: Matt Dayhoff/Journal Star via AP

The defense attorney’s opening statement shocked everyone in the courtroom. 

“So let me just say here at the outset, it will be startling for many of you to hear... Brendt Christensen killed Yingying.” 

It's June 12, 2019, two years and three days after Yingying went missing, the first day of the jury trial in the United States v. Brendt Christensen. The federal government was seeking the death penalty. The alternative for a crime of this nature is life in prison. The trial, from that moment on, was no longer about the certitude of Christensen’s guilt but whether he deserved to die. 

Yingying’s family believed that Christensen should be executed. “My biggest concern is that the suspect won’t get a severe punishment,” Yingying’s father says in the film. Yingying’s grandfather is sitting next to him. Red with rage, the old man exclaims: “If the U.S. does not address this case properly, we’ll kill one or two American students in China.” 

“Having seen how much Yingying’s family has suffered,” Shi, the director, narrates in the film, “I really hoped for the death penalty.” We met for breakfast in Chicago and I asked about this statement. A journalism student at Northwestern University at the time of Yingying’s disappearance, Shi had assisted in the search efforts and witnessed the family’s pain from the very beginning. To her, supporting capital punishment in this case is not an abstract position; it’s about thinking through what “true justice” is for a family that has lost so much. Over eggs and coffee, we shared our impressions of criminal justice from growing up in China and how “a life for a life” was presented as axiomatic. 


Beyond the immediacy of war, when is a state justified to kill?

The Chinese government keeps the total number of executions per year classified. It’s generally estimated to be in the thousands and accounts for 80 percent or more of state executions globally. Western critics point to this as another example of the country’s abysmal human rights record, while Chinese officials and prominent academics claim that the legitimacy of capital punishment is ingrained in Chinese tradition and endorsed by its people. 

“Cultural difference” makes for a convenient excuse to validate the self and exoticize the other. Yet historically, the Middle Kingdom was not any more punitive than its Western counterparts, and recent surveys show a two-thirds support rate for the death penalty in China, roughly the same as those from the U.S. over the same time period. 

Beyond the immediacy of war, when is a state justified to kill? The heart of this question is not about measuring the harms of specific conduct but mapping the contours of state authority. In England and colonial America, as legal historian Stuart Banner writes, “the death penalty circa 1700 was the equivalent of prison today—the standard punishment for a wide range of serious crimes” including arson, theft, and counterfeiting. The spectacle at the scaffold routinely attracted larger crowds than any other public event. The public execution, according to Michel Foucault, was not only a judicial but also a political ritual, through which the state manifested its absolute power. 


Like every other institution in this country, the evolution of the death penalty in the U.S. is intertwined with slavery and codified with racism. The last public execution took place in Kentucky in 1936, when 20,000 people gathered to watch the hanging of a young Black man convicted of rape. The political catastrophes in the first half of the 20th century brought a new urgency and understanding to human rights and the necessity of constraining state power. Today, over 140 countries have abolished the death penalty by law or in practice—at times against popular support for retention—including every country in Europe with the exception of Belarus and nearly half of the countries in Africa. The U.S. is the only Western democracy that regularly executes people. 

In 1988, Democratic nominee for president Michael Dukakis would see his candidacy doomed as he answered “no” to this debate question: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” He lost to George H. W. Bush, whose team ran a series of attack ads, using the likeness of one Black criminal to stoke racial fear. While capital punishment has little effect in deterring criminal behavior, in the era of mass incarceration, vocal support of the death penalty has become an effective tool for elected officials, including judges and prosecutors, to signal their tough stance on crime, hence appealing to the nation’s racist impulses and the public’s thirst for vengeance. 


After nine days of trial and less than two hours of deliberations, the jury found Christensen guilty. The sentencing phase of the trial took place two weeks later. Ten of the 12 jurors voted for the death penalty. Because a unanimous verdict was not reached, Christensen was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

“For me, for myself, the result today seems to tell me that I can kill anyone and I can kill anyone with any kind of cruel method and I will not need to die for it,” Yingying’s partner of eight years speaks to the press after the verdict. “And me, myself will never agree with that.” He pauses after every few words and presses his lips, as if to hold back the flame rising through him. 

I replay this clip and reckon that I’m again at fault for over-intellectualizing. Yingying’s life was precious. It was invaluable. Its loss can never be repaid. Its worth cannot, and should not, be measured by the extent of state-sponsored punishment exacted on the man who took it. 

People line up outside the federal courthouse for the first appearance of Brendt Christensen on July 3, 2017. Photo: Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette via AP

People line up outside the federal courthouse for the first appearance of Brendt Christensen on July 3, 2017. Photo: Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette via AP

For the closing statement at the penalty phase of the trial, Christensen’s defense presented a 72-page powerpoint on why his life should be spared. It opens with a pair of photos. On the left is a grim, gray facility with barbed wires and a watch tower. On the right, a strapped gurney. The defense was signaling to the jury that life in prison is already a very harsh sentence and sufficient punishment for this crime. 


I stare at the slide for a very long time. The menacing images appear to come alive, two monsters manifesting the paucity of our moral imagination. For those opposed to the death penalty, is replacing the needle with a cage the only option? What does the cage accomplish? 

I find a clue in the jury notes. During the eight-and-a-half hours of deliberations, they asked the judge to clarify this question on the special verdict form:  By whether Christensen is likely to commit more acts of violence, did it mean “IN PRISON??” or “IF he was free”? 

The judge confirmed that it’s the former. At the end of the verdict form, the jury added a mitigating factor: “Mr. Christensen is not a social, charismatic person, and so is unlikely to recruit others to commit violent acts on his behalf.” Five jurors agreed with this point. 

By the penalty phase, Christensen had already been found guilty. I’m puzzled over this question to the judge, why the distinction was necessary. If someone is deemed prone to violence as a free man, then he’s likely to become more so in prison, where violence is the norm. 

The only logical explanation, as far as I can tell, is that the jurors were only thinking about violence outside prison, whether Christensen would be able to commit it himself (impossible) or persuade someone on the outside to (unlikely). How Christensen may cause harm, or be harmed, within prison walls did not appear to be of concern. 


Incarceration does not stop or reduce harm in society; it relocates individual harm to places outside public view and promulgates institutional harm in the name of justice. It’s sadly ironic that prisons are called penitentiaries or correctional facilities, while they’re designed for neither repentance nor rehabilitation but segregation and retribution. The prison, as Angela Davis and Gina Dent explained, is a border. It creates and reinforces a binary: us versus them, good versus evil, the deserving versus the unwanted. 

It’s a potent concept, appealing to our instincts. When confirming details about Christensen, I googled his name and clicked on his LinkedIn profile. The moment the page loaded, I looked away. I was terrified that he might see me from the other side of the screen, that he would find out I had visited his profile and make me his next target. In that split second of irrational fear, I took solace in the fact that he is behind bars.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Christensen worked briefly on the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle physics experiment where I spent over a decade of my career. I had known this before, but seeing the words displayed on his page invoked an intense nausea that I doubled over. After reviewing hours of interviews and hundreds of pages of documents on him, I’m haunted by a sense of familiarity. He could have been a colleague, a classmate, someone I encountered at a conference: a white guy who takes whiteness and manhood for granted, who uses nonchalance to mask his insecurity, who can act polite but will never see me as his equal. 


I’ve spoken with many friends and colleagues in physics about this case. I’m surprised, though perhaps I should not be, by how little awareness there is. To be a Chinese student or scholar in the U.S. is to chart a lonely existence. We may be sizable in number, but we are rarely seen or heard. I feel sorry that I’ve brought knowledge of this gruesome crime to people dear to me, but I’ve always felt responsible for Yingying’s death, that I’m complicit by my profession. 

To view it as an isolated incident, an example of the “dangerous few,” would be to miss the underlying context and eschew collective responsibility.

The issues of racism, misogyny, and mental health crises in the sciences and in graduate school did not start with Christensen and have not vanished with his incarceration. Three months before he kidnapped, raped, and murdered Yingying, Christensen had sought help at the university’s counseling center, where he admitted to suicidal and homicidal ideations. Yingying’s family sued the social workers at UIUC for negligence. The case was dismissed

I’m not trying to find excuses for what Christensen did, but to view it as an isolated incident, an example of the “dangerous few,” would be to miss the underlying context and eschew collective responsibility. Less than 10 percent of murders and 20 percent of rapes are committed by strangers. For a woman, the most dangerous place is often the home. Cruel as his act was, to cast Christensen as a uniquely-depraved individual would be to ignore all the historical and contemporary acts of mass violence, of wars, genocides, slavery, and colonization. 


Who, or what, keeps a community safe? Would UIUC be a safer place if some of its resources for policing and surveillance went toward mental health services and supporting international students? To lure female victims into his car, Christensen claimed to be a police officer. He even displayed a badge. This detail is particularly heartbreaking as members of law enforcement are frequent perpetrators of sexual violence, especially toward women of color, but are rarely held accountable. Cops are also more likely to commit domestic abuse than the general population. Most sexual assaults are never reported and fewer than three percent lead to a conviction. On the other hand, the threat of sexual violence is effectively sanctioned as a condition of incarceration, and 60 percent of sexual assaults in prison or jail are committed by staff. 

Prisons cannot solve the problem of prevalent harm in society and are in fact part of the problem, as they perpetuate the logics of power and domination, of segregation and dehumanization, which are also the logics of patriarchy and white supremacy. When we turn away from the face of the condemned, we’re in fact refusing to look at ourselves, to confront our culpability in systems of oppression, to recognize the glimmer of humanity in the darkest corner. Both the darkness and the light are part of what makes us human. A world safe and free means that no one is left behind. 

The memorial garden for Yingying Zhang outside Campbell Hall on the UIUC campus, near where she was last seen. Photo: Stephen Haas/The News-Gazette via AP

The memorial garden for Yingying Zhang outside Campbell Hall on the UIUC campus, near where she was last seen. Photo: Stephen Haas/The News-Gazette via AP

As I was preparing to write this essay, I spent an evening at my favorite restaurant, where I ate dinner and sipped two glasses of wine by the bar. The night ended with me being helped into an Uber, where I stayed for the next three hours. I could not move, could barely see or speak, but I was lucid. I eventually regained some mobility and dialed a friend. The driver, to his credit, took me to my friend’s place. 

I felt fine the next morning, as if it were all just a dream. The only emotion I sensed during those hours of paralysis was an eerie calmness akin to closure, like I had spent my entire life treading the edge of a cliff and finally had to surrender to the air. My mind had filled in the rest of the plot. That I had emerged unscathed made everything seem surreal. 

My friends suggest that I was drugged. One says that I might have had an allergic reaction, which is the version I swear to because the alternative is unthinkable. At one point the driver had tried, but failed, to drag me out of his car. 

“I was too heavy!” I joke with my friends. I laugh. They don’t. 

While a teenager in China, I had many fraught conversations with my mother about who should run errands after dark. My mother insisted that predators would not care for “an old woman” like her, though she was barely 40. I argued that it’s safer for me because I’m tall. After moving to the U.S., I would soon realize how my body is perceived differently here and slowly learn how to navigate space with unwanted attention. My height makes me more visible. Paradoxically, it also offers a primal sense of security. 

At the sentencing phase of the Christensen trial, one of the aggravating factors the jury agreed with was Yingying’s particular vulnerability “due to her small stature and limited ability to communicate in English.” Ten thousand years of civilization and we’re still relying on physical size for protection. 

Among the hundreds of exhibits used in the trial, there’s a 90-second clip. I download it and  press play. Yingying is on stage with her band. She clutches the mic. The music starts and a dam breaks in me. 

The song is Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated.” If I look back on the early aughts, when life revolved around school and heartbreak was about boys, Avril’s voice will accompany those reels of memory. Now, among the familiar sight and through the familiar sound, I also see Yingying. 

We were the same age. But as I research this story, she appears so young to me, like a distant reminiscence. Her life is frozen in time, while mine goes on. 

The backdrop to her stage features a spiraling pattern in green, yellow, and white: a clock turned upside down. I have seen this logo before. It’s on the T-shirt Yingying wore in a photo shortly after arriving in the U.S. The image was used in the missing person bulletin by the police and the FBI. It was labeled “Government Exhibit 1A” and shown on the first day of the trial. 

I go back to the video and let the clock rewind. There, a young woman in a black dress and boots is shredding her voice to the beat. She is singing a song about youth, where time is all future, brimming with possibilities.

Yangyang Cheng is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and a particle physicist.