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Man charged with kidnapping Chinese scholar in Illinois

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Kidnapping charges were filed Friday against a central Illinois man in connection with the disappearance of a visiting Chinese scholar last seen three weeks ago and who is believed by authorities to be dead.

Yingying Zhang, the daughter of a working-class factory driver from China, disappeared on June 9, just weeks after arriving at the University of Illinois where she was pursuing studies in agriculture sciences.

Federal authorities say 27-year-old Brendt Christensen of Champaign, Illinois, is accused of kidnapping Zhang shortly after she stepped off a bus near the university campus. Video show her getting into the front seat of a black Saturn Astra.

The affidavit filed in federal court in support of the complaint says Christensen was under surveillance Thursday when agents overheard him explaining that he kidnapped Zhang. Authorities say based on this, and other facts uncovered during the investigation, agents believe Zhang is no longer alive.

Authorities have not indicated if a body has been found.

Some 5,600 Chinese enrolled at U of I, more than at any U.S. college, according to government data. There are more than 300,000 Chinese students in the U.S. in all. Some parents in China wondered if Zhang’s disappearance meant it wasn’t safe to send to their children to the United States.

Those who knew her described Zhang as bright and outgoing. She played guitar and sang in a band called “Cute Horse” in China. One of her favorite songs was “The Rose,” a hit in 1980 for American singer Bette Midler. Her boyfriend said that she was also cautious and wouldn’t normally get into a car with a stranger unless duped or forced.

Zhang graduated last year with a masters’ degree in environmental engineering from one of China’s elite schools, Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School. She had been doing research on crop photosynthesis, which included using drones to study fields, the university’s communications office has said.

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