Chicago murder sparks shock and anger at home and among Chinese students overseas

Fan Yiran was shot dead in Chicago on Jan 9, 2021.
PHOTO: Twitter

Tim Yang was driving with his girlfriend on a highway in Indiana when she received a text message saying a Chinese doctoral student at the University of Chicago, 30-year-old Fan Yiran, was among those killed in a shooting rampage in the city the day before.

A PhD student himself at Purdue University, about two hours' drive from Chicago's South Side neighbourhood where Fan was gunned down, Yang said he was struck by the randomness of the killing.

"I've driven past the garage where he was shot, there are a lot of Chinese international students living in that area," he said. "It's hard to bear, it's too close to me."

Police say Fan was shot in the head as he sat in his car on the afternoon of Jan 9, the first victim of a gunman who roamed the area "just randomly" shooting people. His rampage left two other people - Anthony Faukner, 20, and security guard Aisha Nevell, 46 - dead and four injured before the gunman was shot dead by police.

Yang, 28, later spent hours scrolling through articles describing what happened, even watching a series of disturbing videos the gunman had posted on social media.

He also found a torrent of messages on a WeChat group of Chicago-based graduates of Peking University, and realised that Fan had also been a member of the group.

Chinese students who had known Fan posted essay-length recollections of a lanky and shy doctoral student who nonetheless loved to debate philosophy and delve into ancient Chinese poetry.

Some lambasted the circumstances that led to Fan's death. Chicago has a history of violent crime, and there was a 50 per cent year-to-year increase in shootings and murders in 2020, according to the Chicago Police Department.

"Chicago needs to really crack down hard, there is a robbery almost every day in Chinatown," wrote one student according to screenshots of the chat group.

Some media outlets back in China went further. Shanghai's Xinwin Evening News started its report on Fan's death with the following: "Shootings, machine gun fire, violence, death… this isn't Gotham, the 'city of crime' in the Batman movies but the famous US city of Chicago!"

But the largest angry reactions were on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where the hashtag #ChicagoShootingSpreeFirstVictimisChineseDoctoralStudent has been read over 56 million times.

When the US embassy in Beijing posted condolences over Fan's death on its official account on Jan 11, it also attracted angry comments.

"It was your pseudo-democracy that killed him!" read one comment that received over 1,000 likes.

The US Second Amendment, which protects the right of American citizens to keep and bear arms, was in some ways responsible for the death of Fan, said Huang Qixuan, a 23-year-old graduate of Western University in Canada.

Huang said gun violence was the main reason he did not want to study in the United States, but so long as US colleges continue to lead the international university rankings, many Chinese companies will expect applicants to graduate from those institutions.

"Some Chinese companies in their entry requirements even specify which ranking system they use," said Huang.

There were 370,000 Chinese students in the US in 2019, making up over a third of foreign students at American universities. Tuition payments from this group generated US$15 billion in 2018, according to a 2020 report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Fan is not the first Chinese international student to have been murdered on US soil. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, Wei Jiawei, a Shenzhen-based founder of an education consultancy, estimates that every year there is a case similar to Fan's.

"I think people here see it as a huge pity because he is a graduate of Peking University," said Wei, explaining that students from lower ranked universities or with wealthy parents don't get the same sympathy.

Huang agreed, saying that 19-year-old Jiang Yue, a Chinese student at Arizona State University, was shot and killed in 2018, but comments on Weibo at the time included criticism of her supposedly wealthy background.

Wei, who has been advising Chinese students and their parents on overseas study destinations since 2017, said US gun violence is common knowledge in China and the main cause of concern among his clients. However, graduates of top schools like Peking University were rarely dissuaded.

"Parents with money often choose to send their children to relatively safer places like Canada," he said. "But for graduates of top Chinese universities like Peking University and Tsinghua University, they are more inclined toward top academic institutions, which leads to the US."

Purdue University doctoral student Yang said that Fan's death has not changed his plans to stay in the US for the next few years.

"The US remains a much better place for innovative research than China," the computer scientist said.

Both Huang in Canada and Yang in Indiana also said China had problems of a different nature, referring to the deaths of young people from overwork and the recent controversy surrounding e-commerce retailer Pinduoduo.

Many tech giants pride themselves on the work ethic summed up by the term "996" - working from 9am until 9pm six days a week.

But Pinduoduo has faced intense media criticism recently for the toll this culture is taking on its employees after one female employee collapsed and died on December 29.

Last week, the company confirmed that another employee in the southern city of Changsha had died after jumping from his apartment building.

"In China there is this culture of everyone climbing over each other to the top, it's not what I want," said Huang.

On Thursday last week, the University of Chicago held a candlelight vigil to honour Fan Yiran.

A candlelight vigil to honour Fan Yiran at the University of Chicago. PHOTO: Weibo

In a statement the college said he came to the university in 2014 to study finance, after completing a bachelor's degree at Peking University and a master's degree at the University of Cambridge.

"Yiran was held in high regard by all who knew him - students, staff and faculty," Malaina Brown, director of the PhD programme at the Booth School of Business said in the statement. "He will be deeply missed."

Fan is survived by his father Fan Chenggang and his mother Xu Chunzhi. The statement said that in collaboration with his family, the university is starting a fund in Fan's memory to support students at the university. Those wishing to contribute, can visit http://ChicagoBooth.edu/memorial-gift

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.