A billionaire helped bring ‘3-Body Problem’ to Netflix. His business partner ensured he never lived to see its premiere

A billionaire helped bring ‘3-Body Problem’ to Netflix. His business partner ensured he never lived to see its premiere
  • PublishedApril 5, 2024

Lin Qi, a billionaire fan of “The Three-Body Problem,” had big plans to bring his favorite Chinese sci-fi novel to TV, cinema and video-game screens across the world.

Flush with cash after the listing of his gaming company in 2014, the young entrepreneur envisioned turning China’s most beloved sci-fi trilogy into a global pop culture phenomenon in the same league as “Star Wars.”

A decade on, Lin would have been a step closer to achieving his dream when a Netflix adaptation of the Hugo Award-winning book drew millions of viewers worldwide – but the billionaire who helped make the show happen never lived to see it.

Lin, who was named as an executive producer in the opening credits of “3 Body Problem,” was poisoned and killed at age 39, according to Chinese authorities, months after Netflix announced its plans to produce the series in 2020.

The culprit was one of Lin’s own executives, a high-flying lawyer who helped Lin’s Yoozoo Games secure the rights to adapt the highly acclaimed trilogy.

After falling out with his boss, Xu Yao gifted Lin a bottle of what he said were probiotic pills, but which contained a cocktail of lethal toxins he bought off the dark web.

Media reports of the meticulously planned murder have gripped China, where it has drawn comparisons online to the American crime drama “Breaking Bad.” According to Chinese media outlets, it involved the mixing and testing of more than a hundred poisons in a makeshift suburban lab.

Xu was sentenced to death for murder by a court in Shanghai on March 22 – the day after the much-anticipated debut of “3 Body Problem” on Netflix.

To Chinese tech entrepreneurs and fans of the books, the dramatically timed sentence served as a poignant reminder of the loss of a rising star in China’s once vibrant internet industry – and a pivotal figure in the making of one of China’s most successful pop culture exports.

Meticulous scheme

On a winter evening in 2020, Lin was driving home from Yoozoo Games headquarters in Shanghai when he suddenly felt unwell. He checked himself in to the hospital and initially recovered to a stable condition, but died 10 days later on Christmas Day, according to his company.

At least five toxins were detected in Lin’s body, including mercury and tetrodotoxin – an extremely potent poison found in pufferfish, Chinese financial magazine Caixin reported, citing people close to the video game tycoon.

Xu was identified as a key suspect and swiftly detained, according to a police statement at the time.

In its ruling last month, the Shanghai court said Xu had a dispute with Lin over “company management matters” and plotted to poison his boss through edible items over two days. Xu also poisoned beverages in the offices of two executives he had disputes with, causing four colleagues to fall sick, the court said. (The four survived.)

In the months following Lin’s death, Chinese media outlets pieced together a more detailed – and chilling – account of the murder, which involved meticulous planning that lasted months.

3 Body Problem. (L to R) John Bradley as Jack Rooney, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Mark Gatiss as Isaac Newton, Reece Shearsmith as Alan Turing, Jenson Cheng as Kublai Khan in episode 103 of 3 Body Problem.

3 Body Problem. (L to R) John Bradley as Jack Rooney, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Mark Gatiss as Isaac Newton, Reece Shearsmith as Alan Turing, Jenson Cheng as Kublai Khan in episode 103 of 3 Body Problem. Netflix

Xu was a huge fan of “Breaking Bad,” an American series about a chemistry teacher who goes into the meth-making business after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, according to Caixin, citing people close to the company.

He set up a lab in a suburb of Shanghai and bought more than a hundred toxins on the dark web to experiment with, often testing mixed poisons on cats, dogs and other pet animals. He then made the lethal substances into a pill, gifting the “probiotic pills” to Lin, Caixin reported.

According to Phoenix News, a Chinese news outlet, Xu held 160 cellphone numbers and set up a trading company in Japan to acquire hazardous chemicals, including the substances he used to poison his colleagues.

Between September and December 2020, Xu swapped the coffee capsules, whiskey and bottled water in the offices of two executives with replacements injected with methylmercury chloride, an acute toxic that can be fatal if swallowed, inhaled or touched, Caixin reported last month, citing court documents.

Falling out

The Shanghai court did not give details on the rift between Xu and Lin, but according to Chinese media reports citing sources in the company, it revolved around Lin’s ambition to adapt “The Three-Body Problem,” part of a trilogy by China’s most celebrated sci-fi author, Liu Cixin.

Lin had long wanted to develop the Three-Body IP into a global cultural franchise, but the rights for adaptations of the books were held by a Chinese business couple who bought them from the author in 2009.

Lin’s determination to secure the rights only hardened after a years-long collaboration with the couple to make a film adaptation fell by the wayside.

In 2017, Xu, an established lawyer educated in France and the United States with a decade of experience working at a Chinese multinational conglomerate, was brought in by Lin to solve the stumbling block.

Xu successfully secured the rights for adaptations. The following year, he was appointed to spearhead a Yoozoo subsidiary, The Three-Body Universe, tasked with developing the Three-Body IP.

But Xu’s performance failed to impress Lin. Soon, he was sidelined, with key projects handed to another executive, Zhao Jilong, one of the executives who would later have his drinks poisoned by Xu, according to Caixin.

Zhao was found to be chronically poisoned, with the mercury concentration in his body exceeding 10 times the safe level, the report said.

Xu’s annual pay was cut from 20 million yuan ($2.76 million) a year when he first joined Yoozoo to around 5 million yuan, according to Phoenix News.

When Netflix announced its adaptation project of “The Three-Body Problem” in September 2020, Lin and Zhao were listed as executive producers, with Xu’s name conspicuously missing.

Yoozoo staff told Caixin the Netflix deal was struck by Lin and a number of young employees. “Xu Yao’s contribution was almost zero,” a source close to Lin was quoted as saying. “Perhaps it was from then that Lin had planned to no longer use Xu Yao.”

In an interview published in November 2020, Xu touted his key role in Yoozoo’s acquisition of the Three-Body copyrights.

“We legal professionals are here to put out fires, break up the deadlock, and must have the courage to be the change maker,” he was quoted as saying.

It would later transpire that at that time, Xu was already planning an act that would forever change his fate, and that of Lin.

A month before Lin’s death, the tycoon told an interviewer that the Three-Body project had the potential to be his life’s legacy, and would likely be on his mind when he said “goodbye to the world when I’m 90 years old.”

“It is said that your mind will be hit by a moment of extreme clarity when you are about to die… So I’m very afraid that what I’ll be thinking before I die is: How did I destroy ‘The Three-Body Problem?”


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