Case of missing student worries Chinese tourists visiting NYC



Tourists gather in Times Square to take pictures in front of the Father Duffy statue. Photo: Yuhong Pang

Huge billboards, iconic neon signs and costumed characters hustling for money make Times Square one of the most sought-after tourist attractions in the world. And for Chinese tourists visiting America for the first time, it’s a site that is not to be missed.

Last year, New York greeted 950,000 visitors from China, a sevenfold increase since 2007, according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism and marketing agency. However, the recent case of a missing Chinese student in the U.S. has garnered wide attention in China, raising concerns for Chinese tourists.

On June 9, Yingying Zhang, a visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois, went missing on her way to sign an apartment lease. Later, federal authorities confirmed that she was kidnapped by a former physics graduate student at the university. Though she is presumed dead by the FBI, her body has not been found.

Jiachen Liu, 17, traveled to New York on a group tour. He gave up his evening sightseeing plan because of the unsolved case. “I was thinking of going out last night, then I thought about the missing Chinese student, so I ended up staying at the hotel. People here carry guns legally. Who knows what will happen at night.”

The case has been continually covered by major Chinese media and has stirred up a heated discussions online about safety issues in the United States.

CCTV, the state television channel in China, has aired 478 related videos about the case, while the official Xinhua News Agency, has posted over 200 articles online since June 15. Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like platform, has drawn 150 million views under the hashtag “Chinese scholar mysterious disappearance in U.S.,” with over 28,000 discussions.

Xiaolei Xu, chief brand officer of China CYTS Tours, one of China’s leading outbound tour operators, said the case has caused additional anxiety for many Chinese tourists. “They have demanded assurance on safety during their travels,” he said.

Chinese tourists in Times Square. Photo: Yuhong Pang.

Jie Sheng, a graduate student in Chicago, who visited New York this summer, felt even greater anxiety, since the student disappeared next to her campus. “My parents got panicked by this case. They even make long-distance phone calls to check with me,” she said.

On August 22, parents and friends of Yingying Zhang held a press conference in Chicago to speak about their pain and appeal to the public for help in finding their daughter. “We will never give up on her,” said Xiaolin Hou, her boyfriend.

A week after the press conference, the trial of suspect Brendt Christenson was rescheduled for February 27, 2018.

“Her case seems to end up with nothing,” said Fang Wang, a Chinese tourist in Times Square. “I don’t think the FBI put much effort into the investigation. Otherwise, how come no new evidence has been disclosed?”

Li Zhang, who came to New York on a business trip, expressed the same doubt. “I think the case is at a dead end, because there’s no new clues showing up,” she said. Li, who studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology for a semester, thinks that every city has different safety concerns.

“I didn’t feel unsafe when I studied here, but when I arrived in Chicago, even my client reminded me to watch out,” she said.

Three Chinese tourists take selfies in Times Square. Photo: Yuhong Pang.

But concerns about safety in the U.S do not frighten all Chinese tourists.

“What happened to that girl is unfortunate, but that does not change my impression of America,” said Terry Xiao, an electronics manufacturer in China. This summer, he took a road trip in the U.S. with his family. Xiao was more concerned about the widely covered incident of an Asian doctor being forcefully dragged off a United Airlines plane last April. “I worried about racial problems before setting out, because we chose United Airlines… Luckily, no incidents happened to us.”

Unlike Mr. Xiao, Ying Liu, whose son got admitted to Colgate University this year, is still concerned about safety in the U.S. after hearing about the missing Chinese student. “I don’t feel safe when I go out at night,” she said, “but my son really wants to study here.”