TRUST CRISIS

The family of a missing Chinese scholar in the US faces criticism of fundraising for her search

The family of a missing Chinese scholar in the US is facing questions and criticism online about a fundraising effort underway to help search for her.

Zhang Yingying, a 26-year-old visiting scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, disappeared on June 9. Zhang was last seen getting into a black car, while running late to meet a leasing agent at around 2 pm. Local police received a missing-person report from Zhang’s friends that night. Zhang’s father, her maternal aunt, and her boyfriend arrived in Champaign to aid the search on June 17.

The FBI later found that the car belonged to Brendt Christensen, a 28-year-old former masters student at the university. They arrested Christensen on June 30, after investigators released a recording of Christensen detailing kidnapping Zhang. (It’s unclear how the recording was made.) Christensen pleaded not guilty to the kidnapping charges last month in Urbana’s federal court, where he is due to appear for a pretrial hearing on Aug. 28. Zhang’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Zhang’s father, Zhang Gaorong, is a truck driver and her mother is a homemaker. The University of Illinois helped Zhang’s family to set up a fundraising campaign with the goal of raising $15,000 on GoFundMe, a crowdsourcing platform, to support the family during the search. In two month’s time, over 3,000 people have donated more than $150,000.

Some have complained, however, that the purpose of the fundraising project has changed, along with its fundraising targets. At first, the fund was created to assist Zhang’s family “with expenses incurred as the search for her continues.” More recently, several additional lines have been added:

It was Yingying’s will to complete her education and return to China to become a university professor, support her family. At this time, we are asking your support to fulfill YingYing’s wish to help her family.

Thank you for helping ensure that Yingying’s dream comes true.

Some have speculated in discussions on GoFundMe and China’s social net-working site Weibo that Zhang’s family could be using the money to immigrate to the US, since the family hired a lawyer who specializes in immigration and real estate cases.

“In the beginning, the father of Zhang Yingying told ppl[people] that he doesn’t want money, he just wants her daughter back, which is normal,”one user commented on GoFundMe. “However, now the target increased harshly, and they already planned to immigrate to USA. The whole meaning of this donation is changed. Anyone who is in USA, please report to USA immigration office and FBI. This donation’s purpose is disgusting.”

It’s not unheard of to see donation fraud on such platforms. A 38-year-old woman in New York was charged with fraud after claiming to have terminal cancer and raising $50,000 through using GoFundMe from 2014 to 2016. A 39-year-old woman based in Indiana reportedly exaggerated her son’s condition to raise over $40,000 on the same platform in 2015.

GoFundMe didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from Quartz, and Zhang’s family has not yet responded to questions from Quartz sent over Weibo. We will update this post with any responses.

Zhang’s family and her boyfriend issued a public statement yesterday (Aug. 29) with details of the money raised. In the over-3,000-word open letter in Chinese, the family addressed 11 questions regarding of the usage of the fund, with details including breakdowns of fees on visas for the family, internet services in the apartment where Zhang’s family is staying, and a reward of up to $50,000 for the search. The family says it has used $70,000 of the fund so far.

Zhang’s family members said they would not use the money for the “future life of her parents” and estimated that there would be more money required for lawsuits, which can last for years. “We will never stop searching for Zhang (link in Chinese) until we find her,” read the letter.

Still, many aren’t convinced. “Please show us your original invoices and bank statements,” commented (link in Chinese) one user on Weibo. “The whole letter reads to me as the whole family is expensing their travel fees while searching for the daughter, I’ve never seen any case that asked for a $500,000 search fund.”

People in China tend to lack trust that their donations to charity are properly used, after a slew of scandals at domestic charity organizations. In December, a man in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen raised nearly $400,000 for his daughter, who was suffering from leukemia, via WeChat. The man was later investigated by local authorities, because the amount reportedly far exceeded the cost of her treatment in China.

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