Why a BMW Became Newsworthy When Chinese Students Died at USC

USC President C. L. Max Nikias bows before images of victims Ying Wu and Ming Qu at a memorial service (Photo: AP)
USC President C. L. Max Nikias bows before images of victims Ying Wu and Ming Qu at a memorial service (Photo: AP)

After waking up in the morning of April 11, 2012, I turned on my laptop, and suddenly I was shocked by some breaking news – two Chinese students had been shot to death that morning near the campus of the University of Southern California (USC).

[Our coverage]

Like me, many Chinese students in the United States were saddened and upset after this unfortunate incident. However, what soon became more upsetting was the media’s focus on the supposed wealth of graduate students Ying Wu and Ming Qu, and how that played into their tragic deaths.

A BMW stirs hate

According to the Associated Press, police said the shooting might have been an attempt to carjack the students’ “dark-colored, $60,000 BMW.” The AP noted, “The types of students who come from abroad typically skew wealthier, because they have to be able to afford a school’s tuition without financial aid.”

In China, this angle became the focus of the story. Many Chinese websites, even including several major online media, rewrote the title of this article as “Two Chinese Students in Los Angeles Were Shot to Death in BMW.”

USC students raise their hands at a candlelight vigil, in what a Facebook commenter described as a "silent objection towards untruthful/misleading reports" (Photo: Neon Tommy)

One netizen even wrote on the Chinese social media site QQ, “Chinese students studying in the U.S. are from rich and powerful families. They use US taxpayers’ money to live luxurious lives and buy expensive BMWs. They deserve to die.”

Later it was clarified that the BMW that Ming Qu was driving was a second-hand car, which had 80,000 miles on it and friends said it only cost him around $10,000.

But the image of the Chinese student in America with his expensive BMW was a powerful one to Chinese netizens.

Why the BMW is important

Without financial aid, college tuition and costs in the United States, especially for a private university like USC, are rarely affordable for a Chinese middle class family. Therefore, many Chinese students studying in the U.S. are labeled as the spoiled wealthy or official second generation.

In addition, with reports in recent years that some corrupt Chinese government officials have laundered their bribery money by sending their children and illegal property abroad, some Chinese tend to move their anger about wealth inequality to Chinese students studying abroad as a whole, because they believe those students are squandering Chinese taxpayers’ money.

The BMW in which these two Chinese students were shot became a symbol of privilege, and of the wealthy flaunting their money as others in China struggle (even though these particular students turned out to have been not that wealthy at all).

Are the stereotypes true?

It’s not just in Chinese media where this image of wealthy Chinese students is propagated, though. Both Chinese and American media talk about how American colleges are pursuing wealthy Chinese students who don’t require financial aid, or of how some of them are living luxurious lives in America with their parents’ money.

And having spent almost four years in an American college and looking at the Chinese student community around me, I have to admit it is true that there are those Chinese students who are from rich or powerful families.

It is true that there are those Chinese students who are fond of luxurious brands and expensive cars, and that there are those Chinese students who are just here for a U.S. college diploma.

However, as with all generalizations, this image of Chinese students does not represent the whole truth.

The fact is that I know lots of Chinese students who work as hard as possible to make a living and support their education. Another hard fact: I have met lots of Chinese students who stay until midnight in the library to study and get straight A’s in their classes. One last hard fact: lots of Chinese students, even those who are from wealthy and rich families, are fighting hard for their dreams and futures.

It takes courage to fly fifteen hours to cross half of the planet, and it’s never easy to say goodbye to our families and friends. Those who make this decision and fight for their dreams deserve to be respected.

Every life matters and every life is valuable, no matter whether he or she dies on a $20 bicycle, or in a $60,000 BMW — no one “…deserves to die in a BMW.”

R.I.P., Ying Wu and Ming Qu.

8 comments

  1. Today is May 9 already, why are you still talking about the incident, about “images”? News comes and goes. There’s always transient response, negative or positive, from all walks of life. you don’t need respond or react to transient state. 99.97% of the people who read the news that day already forgot about it all e.g. they forgot about the murder, the victims, the BMW, USC, its tuition, room and board, the $4K income per capita in China, etc. If the police ever catches the killer, you can bet the BMW will rise again. Meanwhile, if you’re a visiting student, just concentrate on your study, trade in the brand of car that can cause controversy for a low profile car, finish school then go home.

    1. I think the point is that this incident, and the focus on the BMW imagery, reveals something deeper about how China sees students who choose to study in America (and conversely how America sees Chinese students, as Qian also points out).

      There was an interesting article in The Diplomat recently that also touched on this issue of how Chinese international students are viewed at home and in the US: http://t.co/ppu202zu

    2. Larry, thanks for your response. Yes, News comes and goes, however, today is in 2012 but people are still talking about the 9/11 incident in 2001. News reported the tragedy and the public should think why this tragedy happened and how to prevent it. Meanwhile, It’s clear that my point here is not the murder itself nor the high-profile car, but the reason why there were victim-blame comments.

    3. Larry, thanks for your response. Yes, News comes and goes, however, today is in 2012 but people are still talking about the 9/11 incident in 2001. News reported the tragedy and people should think why this tragedy happened and how to prevent it. Meanwhile, It’s clear that my point here is not the murder itself nor the high-profile car, but the reason why there were victim-blame comments.

    4. People never forget. It’s been a year. I do not forget. I believe a lot of people still remember the victims as well as the unfair and distorted coverage. I am going to talk about the coverage again in my class and teach my students how to avoid making similar mistakes in reporting.

  2. What this author said is correct. There are always Chinese students who came here because of their own efforts and merits. However, she failed to mention that the vast majority (>95%) of the Chinese students studying as an undergraduate or high school student in US schools are from: 1) families of corrupted officials, 2) families of business people, of whom almost 100% got their fortunes through illegal means.

    For graduate schools, however, the percentage is lower because many working families can also afford it if the student gets Assistantship/Scholarship from the US school.

    As we are all aware and have painful first-hand experiences, China is rotten to the core and corruption is so rampant and as pervasive as air in China. Because money can buy any and every thing in China, ordinary people lose their basic opportunities because someone else with money takes it away through corruption: jobs, education, health care, etc. That is why there is so much anger in China towards corrupted officials and business people.

    From what I read, these 2 students were probably an exception. However, even that is doubtful if they were paying for the school themselves without any assistantship/scholarship from USC. Without “grey income” (a fancy name for ill-gotten money in China), what kind of families can afford the expensive USC? Do you think the salaries of a governor or mayor in China are sufficient to pay for a child’s study at USC?

Comments are closed.