In the summer of 2008, months before China would host the Olympics, Diana O’Brien left her small Canadian town for Shanghai to build her burgeoning international modeling career. Two weeks after landing in China, O’Brien’s roommate and fellow model Charlotte Wood found her in the stairwell of their Shanghai apartment building, stabbed 22 times.
Just five days later, the Chinese police arrested Chen Jun, an 18-year-old migrant laborer from a nearby rural province, having found him in possession of O’Brien’s belongings. With China’s official conviction rate for murder cases at 99.9%, the only way to have a chance at avoiding the death sentence is to confess. Unsurprisingly, Chen did.
The mystery had supposedly been solved, but very little explained.
It’s a void that Mara Hvistendahl, a journalist and longtime resident of Shanghai, has filled with “And The City Swallowed Them,” (purchase required) the debut piece of journalist cooperative, Deca.
Hvistendahl, who was living just a mile or so from O’Brien, found an intriguing parallel between victim and killer. Whatever their differences in background, both O’Brien and Chen became cheap, exploitable and ultimately fungible labor in Shanghai.
“What struck me the more I looked into this story were some similarities between the models who are drawn to the city by the promise of starting their career and the rural migrants who come with the same dreams,” she tells Quartz. ”They’re both excluded to some degree from what the city has to offer—they’re somewhat invisible, they’re not technically working here legally so they’re not allowed full benefits.”
As Hvistendahl highlights, O’Brien’s job as a model made her unusually vulnerable. She had just returned from a successful modeling gig in Milan, to where she hoped to return again soon. Her Canadian modeling agency, Coultish Management, told her that a stint in Shanghai would improve her chances of landing another Italian contract, according to an email O’Brien sent to a friend. (Coultish Management didn’t respond to Quartz’s request for comment.)
However, O’Brien arrived to find that JH Model Agency, the local Chinese firm that had hired her through Coultish, had booked her for gigs selling Ballantine’s whiskey in upscale clubs—not the magazine shoots she had hoped for.
This is common, says Hvistendahl. The internet has lowered the barriers for mother agencies—modeling agencies in developed countries that act as middlemen between foreign models and overseas agencies—to sign up models. At the same time, it’s made it easier for overseas agencies to locate mother agencies, making them less reliant on a single agency for its supply of models. Now, overseas companies command a bigger cut of the hefty share of a model’s earnings that the two agencies jointly pocket.
To offset that crimped profit, mother agencies need to boost revenue, meaning they must farm out more and more models to overseas gigs. And many models are willing; intensifying competition in top-tier markets like Italy mean that, for young women and men just starting their modeling careers, China’s a place to build their portfolios. This has created a market for fly-by-night overseas agencies like JH, their exploding numbers pushing down work standards across the industry. JH and its owner vanished from Shanghai shortly after O’Brien’s murder. But the number of Chinese modeling agencies keeps expanding, based on this directory of Chinese agencies.
The way globalization has turned models into low-value commodities has worsened working and living conditions everywhere. But even by those standards, models who have worked in China told Hvistendahl that it’s “the bottom of the barrel.”
This is because mother agencies frequently dispatch their models to places like China with minimum vetting. Models assured of a chance to do magazine shoots turn up to find they’ve been booked for fetish lingerie ads or, in O’Brien’s case, as a bar hostess. So lousy were the opportunities that just two weeks into her three-month contract with JH, O’Brien booked her return flight home.
Part of the problem is that the Chinese government doesn’t officially recognize modeling as a profession eligible for a work visa—models have to enter the country on tourist visas and work illegally. The police finally seem to be taking action—by cracking down on foreign models. Just last month, after setting up a modeling agency sting, Chinese authorities detained 60 Western models working on tourist visas in Beijing, jailing four.
Even after pocketing a near 40% commission from a model’s net earnings, Chinese modeling agencies often take another half for the model’s expenses, many of which are assessed at inflated prices. This form of indentureship means few models make money; some wind up their contracts in debt to their agency, reports Hvistendahl.
O’Brien’s experience was typical. Her contract with JH gave the agency 30% of her earnings, with another 10% going to Coultish, another 10% for Chinese taxes (which since O’Brien was illegal, JH probably didn’t pay), and 50% to O’Brien. However, JH paid her only after deducted “expenses,” including fees for being featured on its website, transportation and other items, priced well above the actual cost. O’Brien was also required to pay $360 a month for a room in Jinsen Mansion, the dingy apartment she shared with other models, much higher than the actual market value for the rental.
Jinsen Mansion’s supposedly 24-hour security gate was often unattended. And the lock on O’Brien’s front door was broken and would spontaneously spring ajar on its own.
The door had done just that when Chen Jun strolled through the gates and into O’Brien’s sixth-floor flat. But as Hvistendahl explores, it’s not hard to see what brought him to Jinsen Mansion looking for an unlocked apartment to burgle.
Chen grew up in a tiny village in relatively poor Anhui province, which has since been destroyed (though officially part of the “Turn Small Villages Into Big Villages” plan to relocate farmers to more developed areas, villagers suspect this was also done to make room for a highway connecting the hometowns of former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin).
Xinzhuang, where Chen grew up, was like many other rural villages that are so utterly devoid of gainful employment that they send all the working-age adults to cities in search of work. Uneducated and often in these cities illegally, these workers typically are hired to do menial jobs like construction and cleaning. Chen landed a job as a waiter—the lowest of the low in a country with little regard for service quality and no concept of tipping—in a teahouse next to O’Brien’s apartment complex.
So hopeful—or desperate—was Chen Jun that he forged the papers that permitted him to move to Shanghai, leaving him ineligible for city’s welfare services. Shortly before O’Brien was killed, he was fired from his job. His illegal status exacerbated the fact that he was already without savings or a support network of friends or family—and that as a unit of labor, he was unskilled, cheap and instantly replaceable.
Instead of being executed, Chen was ultimately given a “death with reprieve”—meaning he would be under evaluation for two years, after which he would either be executed or given a life sentence. That was thanks to the judge’s consultation with Debra O’Brien, Diana’s mother, who empathized with how Chen’s dislocation from his hometown and struggle to find employment gave rise to his desperate circumstances. “I felt that he was a pawn in that as much as he was an evil person,” she told Hvistendahl.