Monday, April 15

The Bizarre Chinese Murder Plot Behind Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’

Lin Qi was a billionaire with a dream. The video game tycoon had wanted to turn one of China’s most famous science-fiction novels, “The Three-Body Problem,” into a global hit. He had started working with Netflix and the creators of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” to bring the alien invasion saga to international audiences.

But Mr. Lin did not live to see “3 Body Problem” premiere on Netflix last month, drawing millions of viewers.

He was poisoned to death in Shanghai in 2020, at age 39, by a disgruntled colleague, in a killing that riveted the country’s tech and video-gaming circles where he had been a prominent rising star. That colleague, Xu Yao, a 43-year-old former executive in Mr. Lin’s company, was last month sentenced to death for murder by a court in Shanghai, which called his actions “extremely despicable.”

The court has made few specific details public, but Mr. Lin’s killing was, as a Chinese news outlet put it, “as bizarre as a Hollywood blockbuster.” Chinese media reports, citing sources in his company and court documents, have described a tale of deadly corporate ambition and rivalry with a macabre edge. Sidelined at work, Mr. Xu reportedly exacted vengeance with meticulous planning, including by testing poisons on small animals in a makeshift lab. (He not only killed Mr. Lin, but also poisoned his own replacement.)

Mr. Lin had spent millions of dollars in 2014 buying up copyrights and licenses connected to the original Chinese science-fiction book, “The Three-Body Problem,” and two others in a trilogy written by the Chinese author Liu Cixin. “The Three-Body Problem” tells the story of an engineer, called upon by the Chinese authorities to look into a spate of suicides by scientists, who discovers an extraterrestrial plot. Mr. Lin had wanted to build a franchise of global television shows and films akin to “Star Wars” and centered on the novels.

Mr. Lin would eventually link up with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of the television series “Game of Thrones,” to work on the Netflix project. Mr. Lin’s gaming company, Youzu Interactive, which goes by Yoozoo in English, is no stranger to the HBO hit; its best-known release is an online strategy game based on the show called “Game of Thrones: Winter Is Coming.”

Mr. Lin’s fate would change when he hired Mr. Xu, a lawyer, in 2017 to head a subsidiary of Yoozoo called The Three-Body Universe that held the rights to Mr. Liu’s novels. But not long afterward, Mr. Xu was demoted and his pay was cut, apparently because of poor performance. He became furious, according to the Chinese business magazine Caixin.

As Mr. Xu plotted his revenge, Caixin reported, he built a lab in an outlying district of Shanghai where he experimented with hundreds of poisons he bought off the dark web by testing them on dogs and cats and other pets. Caixin said Mr. Xu was both fascinated and inspired by the American hit TV series “Breaking Bad,” about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who teaches himself to make and sell methamphetamine, eventually becoming a drug lord.

Between September and December 2020, Mr. Xu began spiking beverages such as coffee, whiskey and drinking water with methylmercury chloride and bringing them into the office, Caixin reported, citing court documents. The report’s details could not be independently confirmed.

Calls to Yoozoo and the Shanghai court went unanswered. Netflix did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The plot is as bizarre as a Hollywood blockbuster, and the technique is professional enough to be called the Chinese version of ‘Breaking Bad,’” Phoenix News, a Chinese news outlet, said last month.

According to a story by The Hollywood Reporter in January, Mr. Benioff said the killing was “certainly disconcerting.” “When you work in this business, you’re expecting all sorts of issues to arise. Somebody poisoning the boss is not generally one of them,” he was quoted as saying.

Police arrested Mr. Xu on Dec. 18, 2020, the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court said on its official WeChat account as it announced the verdict and sentencing. Mr. Xu reportedly declined to confess to the crime and did not disclose what poison he had used, complicating doctors’ efforts to save Mr. Lin’s life.

The court said that Mr. Xu had plotted to poison Mr. Lin and four other people over an office dispute. Its post included a picture of a bespectacled Mr. Xu in the courtroom wearing an oversized beige cardigan surrounded by three police officers. The statement said more than 50 people, including members of Mr. Xu’s and Mr. Lin’s family, attended the sentencing.

The Three-Body Universe, the Yoozoo subsidiary, did not respond to a request for comment, but its chief executive, Zhao Jilong, posted on his WeChat account, “Justice has been served,” according to Chinese state media.

Before his untimely death, Mr. Lin was something of a celebrity in the world of young Chinese entrepreneurs. He had built his fortune in the early 2010s, riding a wave of popularity for mobile games. His bid to popularize Mr. Liu’s novels was a rare attempt to export Chinese popular culture — something that has eluded China as its government yearns to wield the same soft power the United States commands with its movies, music and sports stars.

Six years after “The Three-Body Problem” was first published in 2008, an English version translated by Ken Liu was released to widespread acclaim. The book won the Hugo Award, a major science-fiction prize, for best novel. It counted Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg among its fans.

While Netflix is not available in China, “3 Body Problem” has still set off a backlash among Chinese viewers who have been able to access the platform by using virtual private networks, or who have seen pirated versions of the show. Users on Chinese social media expressed anger that the Netflix adaptation Westernized aspects of the story, and said the show sought to demonize some of the Chinese characters.

Even the People’s Liberation Army’s propaganda wing has weighed in on the series. In an editorial published on Saturday on its website, China Military Online, it called the Netflix series an example of American “cultural hegemony.”

“It can be clearly seen that after the United States seized this popular intellectual property with its superpower strength, it wanted to transform and remake it,” the editorial said. “The purpose was to eliminate as much as possible the reputation of modern China.”

Li You contributed research.