China Unsolved is a SupChina weekly series profiling China’s most notorious unsolved mysteries.
In 1996, the disappearance of two young men in Urumqi left lots of questions, which remain unanswered — and unanswerable — to this day.
Images by Katie Morton
People disappear all the time in China. They change their names, jobs, run away, get vanished by the government — or sometimes fate comes for them in the form of foul play.
Still, it’s unusual for both a car and its two young male occupants to vanish all at the same time. But that’s exactly what happened on the morning of October 20, 1996, when 25-year-old Guo Nonggeng, a worker at the Dushanzi Oil Refinery in Xinjiang, and Wang Changrui, 23, a resident of Kuitun city, got into a gray Santana sedan and drove off, hoping to trade the vehicle at a secondhand car lot near Urumqi Racetrack. Both were ethnic Han in a predominately Uyghur area, and Guo had his ID, the car’s documents, and about 1,000 RMB ($150) in cash on him.
Neither was ever seen again.
In 2008, Xinjiang police made a fresh appeal for information, with the officer in charge saying he’d been haunted for 12 years with the guilt of not being able to resolve the matter for the boys’ parents. The bureau offered a 50,000 yuan ($7,400) reward for any clues to solve the case or locate the vehicle.
But the appeal turned up no helpful clues. There are no national statistics on missing persons in China, and authorities are generally unhelpful unless there’s evidence of a crime; even when it comes to missing or kidnapped children, most parents can expect to meet with a brick wall from police.
A significant number of apparent abductions occur near or on the road. In May 2013, Xing Rui, a postgraduate at the Beijing Dance Academy, successfully completed her viva, celebrated with friends, then walked to a bus stop, messaging her parents around 9 pm that she would be home in half an hour. She was never seen again; a year later, Xing’s cousin, Fan Wenbo, appeared on So You Think You Can Dance (中国好舞蹈 zhōngguó hǎo wǔdǎo) and raised the case. Despite multiple celebrity appeals on Weibo, it remains unresolved.
In November 2014, 26-year-old Xie Jinsheng disappeared while waiting for his girlfriend by the side of the road. Xie asked her to meet him at the bus station near his dormitory in Panyu district, Guangzhou, but when she arrived there was no sign. Xie’s phone hung up on the first ring, then stopped responding; a search by his parents the next morning found only Xie’s coat and a pair of broken glasses in the grass by the road.
There has been much theorizing as to what might have happened, with popular explanations suggesting that Guo and Wang were killed for their money and the case; Wang killed Guo and took the case; or they’d gotten into an accident en route to the lot, and then one of the other party had conspired to cover up the incident. There is also the possibility that the two Chinese men fell foul of the ethnic tensions that have seen multiple riots, murders, and terrorist attacks across the region. But until a shred of evidence pertaining to the fate of either Wang, Guo, or their vehicle, ever turns up, the case will remain tantalizingly open.