Netflix’s ‘Three-Body Problem’ project in China was already controversial. Then came an alleged poisoning

January 27, 2021, 8:32 AM UTC

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One of Netflix’s new signature projects has become embroiled in a scandal that may one day be worthy of its own Netflix true crime series.

In September 2020, streaming giant Netflix announced that it was partnering with China’s Yoozoo Pictures to adapt the hit Chinese science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem into a television show. Yoozoo Pictures previously owned the filming rights to The Three-Body Problem, the first book in the Remembrance of Earth‘s Past trilogy, but was frequently criticized in China for its unsuccessful attempts to bring the popular novels to film and television screens.

At the time, Netflix said that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, creators of HBO’s Game of Thrones, would write the show, while Yoozoo’s chairman Lin Qi and vice president Zhao Jilong were included as executive producers on the project.

“We are thrilled to embark on this new adventure with Netflix,” Lin said in a statement.

But in late December, Chinese media reported that Lin had been poisoned to death. Lin was hospitalized in Shanghai on Dec. 15 and died ten days later on Christmas, according to Chinese media. Authorities in Shanghai reportedly found at least five different types of poison in Lin’s blood, including tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin found in pufferfish, and mercury, a heavy metal that is lethal when consumed in certain quantities. Chinese media outlet Caixin Global also reported that Yoozoo’s vice president Zhao and at least one other employee had been poisoned with mercury in non-lethal doses.

In late December, Shanghai police confirmed to Chinese media that they had detained a suspect who worked at Yoozoo with the surname Xu. In January, an investigation by Caixin Global found that the suspect is likely Lin’s colleague Xu Yao, the CEO of Yoozoo Pictures who joined the company in 2017. Xu, a lawyer by training, was tasked with developing portions of the intellectual property related to The Three-Body Problem.

Police have not yet charged Xu or anyone else in Lin’s death, and the potential motive in Lin’s suspected killing remains unclear. But Caixin also reported that Xu and Lin had a poor relationship, which stemmed, at least in part, over competition relating to Lin’s deal with Netflix.

Xu may have drawn inspiration from the Breaking Bad television series, sources close to Lin and Yoozoo told Caixin. He reportedly built his own lab to make poisons and tested them on pets like cats and dogs.

In a note to Fortune, Yoozoo did not comment on Xu’s alleged role in Lin’s poisoning but called Lin’s passing a “loss beyond description to all of us.” Yoozoo also said it is committed to seeing the project through.

“Our collaboration with Netflix on The Three-Body Problem series will continue as planned,” a spokesperson for Yoozoo said in a statement. Fortune was unable to track down any legal representative for Xu.

Lin’s death is now the second high-profile scandal for Netflix’s Three-Body Problem series after U.S. lawmakers in September 2020 called on the streaming giant to cancel production amid questions about Liu Cixin, author of the Three-Body Problem novels, and his apparent support for China’s treatment of its Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

Netflix declined to comment on Lin’s death or future production of the Three-Body Problem for this story, but the series of scandals now threatens to tarnish the blockbuster project before it even gets off the ground.

Reconsidering the project?

Neflix announced its Three-Body Problem plans in September to great fanfare, especially due to the involvement of Game of Thrones creators Weiff and Benioff.

“Liu Cixin’s trilogy is the most ambitious science-fiction series we’ve read,” wrote Benioff and Weiss in a statement. “We look forward to spending the next years of our lives bringing this to life for audiences around the world.”

But U.S. senators soon raised questions about Netflix’s decision to partner with Liu, and asked Netflix in a letter to “seriously reconsider” going through with the project because doing so would provide tacit support to China’s alleged human rights violations.

Randy Holmes—Getty Images

In a 2019 interview with the New Yorker, Liu indicated that he supported Beijing’s repressive treatment of the Uighur minority population in China’s western Xinjiang province. The U.S. government last week designated China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang as genocide, alleging that Beijing has arbitrarily imprisoned over 1 million people in detention camps, committed forced labor and sterilization, and imposed “draconian restriction” on freedoms of speech and religion. In their letter, the U.S. senators accused Netflix of “normalizing” China’s actions in Xinjiang by doing business with Liu. China has denied committing human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Netflix denounced Liu’s comments but said it intended to carry on with the show.

“Mr. Liu is the author of the book—The Three Body Problem—not the creator of this show,” Netflix said, in a statement to Fortune. “We do not agree with his comments, which are entirely unrelated to his book or this Netflix show.”

Where to go from here?

Netflix appeared willing to press ahead with the project amid the Xinjiang controversy, but it has not indicated whether Lin’s death will change its plans for the Three-Body Problem production.

“[Lin Qi] was the one pushing the project forward and [the Netflix deal] seemed like the culmination of all his efforts,” says Stanley Rosen, a Chinese politics, society, and film professor at the University of Southern California. “It seems like a project that’s jinxed.”

Netflix has provided few details about Yoozoo and Lin’s involvement in the project’s development. China’s ‘Great Firewall’ blocks Netflix in the country, and it is unclear whether Yoozoo has the rights to release the series in China. In its press release announcing the project, Netflix said Yoozoo “granted rights” to produce the Three-Body Problem, and it listed Yoozoo as one of five executive producers on the project. Yet, as with many executive producer credits in Hollywood, it is unclear what role Yoozoo played in the production and how Lin’s contributions can be replaced.

At the very least, Rosen says, Lin’s death will make it more difficult for Netflix and Yoozoo to deal with the delicate set of issues that face any collaboration between Hollywood and China.

Productions aimed at placating audiences in both China and the U.S. tend to run into problems, Rosen said, and cited examples like The Great Wall, a co-production between the China Film Group and Universal Pictures, and Disney’s Mulan, which struggled to gain traction in China and faced blowback in the U.S. for cooperating with security forces in Xinjiang.

He says that someone like Lin, who was passionate about the Three-Body Problem, would be critical to ensuring that the production accurately represents the book’s cultural context and source material.

“Replacing [Lin] can be done, but you won’t get anyone as committed as he was,” says Rosen. One of Lin’s former professors wrote a note on an online memorial for Lin that said Lin personally spent $150 million on securing rights to the Three-Body Problem and felt it was his life’s work to bring Liu’s novels to a larger audience.

Yoozoo told Fortune that Lin’s colleague Zhao will continue serving as an executive producer on Netflix’s show and will make sure “the production runs smoothly.” The Yoozoo spokesperson said Zhao will work on other projects related to The Three-Body Problem as a means to “carry on [Lin’s] unaccomplished vision.”

Yoozoo and the Three-Body Universe, an affiliate company in charge of The Three-Body Problem’s intellectual property, also say they are making “management level adjustments to ensure all things operate smoothly” following the alleged poisoning that reportedly involved at least two Yoozoo employees.

Financial incentives also factor into the project’s future.

How much Netflix paid for in its The Three-Body Problem deal with Yoozoo is not publicly known, but in 2019, Amazon was reportedly in talks with Yoozoo to purchase the rights for $1 billion. That year, Netflix also signed Benioff and Weiss to a deal worth a reported $200 million.

“[Netflix and Yoozoo] seem quite eager to push forward on it because so much money has been invested,” says Rosen. “[The Three-Body Problem] is very strong intellectual property.”