Yitong Ling would never have imagined her “super nice” friend Xiangnan Li would be the main person of interest in a suspicious murder case. Even so, Ling said she wasn’t surprised when the Iowa City Police Department released the news Monday, Sept. 29.
“The whole world has been looking for Li Xiangnan,” Ling, 19, a University of Iowa sophomore from Beijing said matter-of-factly about the man police are seeking in connection to the death of Iowa State University student Tong Shao.
By whole world she meant the most popular social media platforms in China — Weibo and WeChat — where hundreds of millions of people actively post information.
Days before police identified Li as the main person of interest in Shao’s death, friends of both were asking other web users to help find Shao and Li. The social media users indicated that Li had been back in China since Sept. 10.
The last known communication from Shao was on Sept. 8, when friends said they received a message from her stating that she was in Iowa City. Her body was found in the trunk of her car in Iowa City on Friday, Sept. 26. Iowa City Police identified her as the victim on Sept. 29 and said the case was being investigated as suspicious.
Police also identified Li, 23, as the person of interest they were seeking. Police listed his address as 2401 Highway East, although people who knew him said he had lived elsewhere, as well.
The social media posts revealed photos of Li, 23, and personal information, including name, hometown, date of birth, and almost all of the digits of his Chinese government identification number.
Concerned about the case, Chinese Weibo and WeChat users have reposted a mix of original links to local Iowa news, translated and edited versions of stories from Iowa, and passed on bits of information provided by people who claim to be friends or relatives of Shao or Li.
Some indicated that they feared that Shao was dead and that local police needed to find Li. Some even called Li a murderer, although Iowa City Police have not indicated that he is a suspect or that charges are pending.
Ling said it was unfair to Li, whom she met during the spring 2013 international orientation at the University of Iowa. Li didn’t talk to people around him, she said.
“You could be concerned and look for this person, but why did you make all his private information public?” she said about the lively social media exchanges before Iowa City Police identified him as a person of interest.
“Plus, social media really is a mixed source of information. And now the overwhelming criticism is against him. What if he is innocent? How long will he be wronged?”
Ling said Li has lost contact with his friends in Iowa City since late August. Feeling scared, Ling said she still couldn’t believe the Li she knows as being gentle, always giving his friends rides to Ames and inviting people to his Coralville apartment, would kill his girlfriend, Shao. He transferred to Iowa in his junior year from the Rochester Institute of Technology to be closer to her, he had told friends.
“He used to tell me every Friday night he would drive to Ames and get her to Iowa City, and then drive her back to Ames Sunday,” Ling said.
Ling, a psychology major, said she also felt strange about the whole thing. Li had told her four months ago he would have to go back to China in late August or early September after graduating.
“I asked him if he’d consider working or going to a graduate school in the U.S. after graduation. He said, probably, but he must return to China first,” Ling said. “So this (early September) was the time that he was supposed to be back. It’s hard to guess.”
The University of Iowa Registrar’s Office indicated that Li has not graduated. He still was registered as a student on Sept. 30, the office verified.
Rather than panicking about news from unidentified online sources, Ling said she would wait for authoritative police reports with solid evidence.
“Information posted on WeChat moments (posts) is the least believable,” she said.
Another friend of Li’s at Rochester Institute of Technology, whose Weibo account name is Qiya, and who insisted on being anonymous, wrote on her Weibo page on Sept. 28: “Life is like a play. The friend with whom I used to hang out a lot now becomes the No.1 suspect. He showed me his girlfriend’s photo before transferring out. I wouldn’t expect this to happen.”
She later deleted the post.
Qiya said in an interview she thinks Li has acted suspiciously but hopes he is innocent, and that she did not want to spread rumors about him.
Several people who said they were Shao’s friends on Weibo declined interviews except for one under the account name of Fahaogalun, who said he was a classmate of Shao’s at a local high school in Dalian, a coastal city in Northern China.
Fahaogalun wrote that although he helped spread the message about Shao’s disappearance at the early stage, he didn’t want to talk about anything beyond what Iowa newspapers have reported.
“A lot of the facts have been distorted while being circulated,” he said. That distortion, he said, included claims about Shao before her body was identified and about Li. “And I don’t want to be the one making things worse.”
“Despite the possibilities, I think making any assumption before the final results come out is irresponsible,” he added.
While local Iowa newspapers talk with sources for their reports on the murder case, half the globe away in Wenzhou, a coastal city located in China’s Zhejiang Province where Li is from, local reporters also are striving to check facts for their stories.
Linfeng Ye, one of the three reporters who covered the case for the Sept. 30 issue of the local Wenzhou newspaper, said any official and unofficial information about the case had gone viral in China.
“We couldn’t find him,” Ye wrote in a personal chat via social media, referring to Li. “We called two phone numbers tied to him, and one went through. The person who answered the phone said he knew nothing and then hung up.”
“We can’t disclose if the Chinese police are looking for Li,” Ye wrote in a WeChat message translated from Chinese to English by IowaWatch. “The extradition treaties between China and the United States are complex, and no sufficient evidence shows that Li is the suspect. So it’s a tough issue for the Chinese police.”
THE UI RESPONDS TO INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS
The University of Iowa International Students and Scholars services sent email reminders to international students the mornings of both Sept. 29 and Sept. 30, informing students of on and off campus resources available for coping with difficult times. The agency is willing to talk to parents with concerns, the email said.
Tangyue Qian, a University of Iowa student from Anhui Province, said most of her knowledge about progress in the case was from WeChat but that she does not believe all she sees on social media. She said she was worried about something like this happening where she lives but that she doesn’t think it should frighten students too much.
“It’s not that it won’t happen in the U.S. or somewhere else,” Qian, 18, said. “You just have to be careful and protect yourself anyway.”
She said her parents learned about the case and asked her to be careful, and to keep away from people acting weird.
“My friends and I felt the same when we saw the e-mail — we appreciated what the university did but also were concerned if the image of students would go bad this way,” Ling, Li’s friend at the University of Iowa, said about Chinese students studying abroad at the university.
She cited two cases involving Chinese students at the University of Iowa when talking about that image. One was the 1991 shooting incident in which physics doctoral graduate Gang Lu murdered five people, wounded another and then killed himself on campus. Another was a sexual assault case in which former student Peng Tang pleaded guilty third-degree sexual assault and extortion.This IowaWatch story was published by the Des Moines Register, Iowa City Press-Citizen and The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) under IowaWatch’s mission of making its stories available for republication. Please support our nonprofit journalism with a tax deductible donation at this link.