A sexual assault settlement in the U.S. highlights #MeToo in China

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A high-profile sexual assault settlement in Minnesota puts a fresh spotlight on the #MeToo movement in China

The news: This week, one of the highest-profile Chinese #MeToo cases in years returned to the spotlight when it was settled before trial in a Minnesota court. The case was brought against Richard Liu — founder of the Amazon-like site JD.com and one of China’s most prominent billionaires — by a woman named Liu Jingyao. She said that in 2018, when she was a University of Minnesota undergraduate, Richard raped her when he was at the university for a weeklong executive program. She had been recruited to serve as a volunteer for the program and was invited to a dinner with the participants. Jingyao was seated next to Richard, and after dinner and many rounds of drinks, they returned to her apartment. She said he raped her there.

Richard was arrested by the Minneapolis police, but he was released the following day and allowed to return to China. Months later, Minneapolis prosecutors announced they would not file criminal charges against him, citing insufficient evidence.

Richard’s defense — he said the sex was consensual — sparked a fierce social media debate about drinking and rape culture in China amid a wave of other #MeToo cases in the country. Jingyao decided to file a civil case the following year — accusing him of rape and demanding more than $50,000 in damages — which led to the settlement last weekend.

News of the settlement set off another round of heated discussion, with posts garnering millions of views across social media and other forums in China.

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The big picture: In recent years, China’s #MeToo movement has faced setbacks due to government repression and a legal system that makes it difficult for survivors to prevail in court. This case garnered particular attention because of Richard’s fame, but also because it has played out on U.S. soil, with far greater publicity and transparency, and more favorable rules for plaintiffs bringing sexual assault claims. Given the unusual level of global attention, the settlement has brought a fresh focus to the sexual harassment and assault issues women face in China.

China and #MeToo: The movement has faced opposition

China’s #MeToo movement was inspired by the stories of sexual assault shared by celebrities on U.S. social media in 2017. In the years that followed, dozens of Chinese women came forward with their own #MeToo stories. Many of the allegations were brought on university campuses, leading to a series of firings of professors. Others were brought against government officials and employees of prominent companies like Alibaba.

But the movement has faced pushback from several quarters in China — the government, Chinese companies and the public writ large. Women who have come forward have often been shamed online, and various #MeToo hashtags, in English and Chinese, have been heavily censored. Chinese police have also arrested prominent #MeToo activists. And the woman who accused her boss at Alibaba of raping her was fired.

The case of Peng Shuai — the tennis star who brought the most high-level public sexual assault allegation to date against a Chinese official — underlined the government’s sensitivity toward the issue. Peng said Zhang Gaoli, a retired Vice Premier of China, had forced her into having sex with him. After Peng posted her account on social media, it was shared widely before being deleted within 30 minutes. Peng has rarely ventured out in public since.

Legal: How the courts favor the accused in China

The case in Minnesota has provided a high-profile moment for China’s #MeToo movement, in part because women rarely pursue sexual assault cases in the Chinese legal system — and because they almost never win.

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Gigi, a U.S.-based Chinese feminist activist who has been a longtime supporter of Jingyao, said that despite the obstacles in the legal process, the U.S. setting brought clear benefits to Jingyao and the broader #MeToo movement. (Gigi asked to use her first name due to the sensitivity of the topic).

“The trial was going to happen in the [United States],” she told Grid, “and I think that provides a lot of public access to the documents, and provides us so many details about what actually happened, which is quite rare for a lot of high-profile #MeToo cases in China.”

People bringing sexual assault claims face a much harder time in the Chinese legal system, said Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center who has studied these cases in China. “If the incident happened in China and the case happened in China, Richard Liu would have been in a much stronger position — because of the rules of the litigation game, Jingyao would have had a much, much harder time to prove her case and had a much greater chance of losing,” Longarino said.

Compared to the U.S., Chinese courts must meet higher standards of evidence to prove sexual assault. Judges don’t give much weight to personal testimony, which poses problems for plaintiffs because sexual harassment and assault often occur in private spaces without witnesses or outside evidence. Longarino and his colleagues reviewed 12 cases in which judges had to decide based on accounts from both sides alone; the alleged harasser won 10 of the 12.

A recent high-profile case illustrates these challenges. Zhou Xiaoxuan, an intern at a state media company, accused a prominent TV anchor, Zhu Jun of China’s CCTV, of sexual harassment. The case rested on Zhou’s accusation; it was dismissed for lack of evidence and rejected on appeal by a higher court this year.

Social media: A torrent of online harassment

Beyond the challenges in court, Jingyao’s case has also highlighted both the support and the furious backlash women face online in China when they share #MeToo claims.

Chinese feminists celebrated the settlement on Weibo and other online forums, and some gathered in solidarity with Jingyao at the Minnesota courthouse.

“It’s a hard-earned win for both Jingyao and #Metoo movement in China,” wrote Xiaowen Liang, a U.S.-based Chinese feminist activist and lawyer who has supported Jingyao on Twitter.

Gigi said she was heartened to see the online response in various WeChat groups from Chinese feminists who offered support for Jingyao. “I can see that people stand in real solidarity with Jingyao and are happy for her.” She added, “I think the Me Too movement has come a long way.”

But the settlement has also rekindled a fierce debate on Chinese social media, both about the facts of the case and the surrounding issues. Echoing comments that social media users heaped on Jingyao when she first came forward, some people in China have called her a gold-digger and said the settlement showed that she hadn’t stood by her initial claims.


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Sara Liao, an assistant professor of media studies at Penn State, said the debate reflected different interpretations and translations of the brief statement that accompanied the settlement, and which was released by both parties. Liao said feminists and groups who sympathize with Jingyao emphasized language that referred to the “differences” between the two parties, who had chosen to “settle their legal dispute.” Meanwhile, Jingyao’s detractors latched on to the line that the 2018 incident “resulted in a misunderstanding,” as a way of suggesting that Jingyao was admitting that her claim itself had been a “misunderstanding” and that she had been motivated by compensation all along.

“This debate relates to the long-existing victim-shaming associated with rape and sexual harassment,” said Liao, “but also reflects the powerful PR campaigns from [JD.com] and the prevalent misogynistic culture in China.”

Gender: A backlash against feminism in China

The opposition to #MeToo cases in China has roots in a broader government-endorsed pushback against feminism.

Five leading Chinese feminists were jailed in 2015 for trying to spread information about sexual harassment on the subway, and others have been subjugated to tight censorship.

The government has increasingly encouraged women to adopt more traditional roles. One central point of tension involves the decision to have children. With the birthrate falling precipitously in China, the government has axed the one-child policy and is now encouraging women to have three children. This campaign has largely failed, but the rhetoric continues. Some feminists have said the government has adopted an anti-feminist, “pronatalist” stance that doesn’t reflect the Party’s commitment to gender equality.

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Meanwhile, in several prominent incidents that have gone viral this year, gender has been downplayed. When a video showed male diners attacking several women at a restaurant in Tangshan, China, social media posts and state media characterized it as a matter of public safety and gang violence rather than gender violence and sexism, the New York Times reported.

Against this backdrop, and the tightening restrictions on expression and activism overall in China, #MeToo advocates see an uphill battle.

“I think it’s comforting, Jingyao’s case, for a lot of China’s Me Too movement, but that does not make us simply or naively optimistic about the Me Too movement in China,” said Gigi. “We have to see the real repression that’s happening.”

Further reading:

She accused a tech billionaire of rape. The chinese internet turned against her. — the New York Times

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Erased in China, trending in the rest of the world: #WhereIsPengShuai? — Grid

How do sexual harassment claims fare in china’s courts? — the Diplomat

Battling violence and censors, women in china become ‘invisible and absent’ — the New York Times

Cleo Li-Schwartz contributed to this report. Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.