China #MeToo Lawsuit Settled in US Court

A case that gripped a nation . . .

A #MeToo case widely followed in China reached its legal conclusion this week thousands of kilometres from any Chinese court. The case in question was a 2019 lawsuit filed by Liu Jingyao, then an international student at the University of Minnesota. She accused Liu Qiangdong (no relation), head of Chinese e-commerce giant, of rape after the two attended a business dinner in Minneapolis. Local prosecutors declined to proceed with a criminal trial, but Ms. Liu pursued the matter in civil court. On Saturday, the parties announced they had reached a financial settlement, but did not disclose the amount. The case divided the Chinese public, with some accusing Ms. Liu of looking for a payout and supporters applauding her for having the courage to take the case to trial.

Hostile environment . . .

Within China, sexual assault and harassment cases against high-profile men are often stifled and media commentary censored, especially as authorities become less tolerant of independent activism around women’s rights. A recent example is tennis star Peng Shuai, who last year accused former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. After making the accusation, Peng temporarily disappeared from public view and then rolled back her earlier statements in a manner suggesting intimidation and coercion by the Chinese government. In another case, Zhou Xiaoxuan accused prominent television host Zhu Jun of groping her while she was an intern in 2014. In August, a Beijing court rejected Zhou’s appeal of the legal system’s decision not to prosecute the case, saying it lacked sufficient evidence. Although considered a landmark for China’s #MeToo movement, social media posts about the Zhou case were censored.

Glass half full?

Despite the setbacks, the public airing of these and other cases has bolstered discussion in China of sexual assault-related issues. The Liu case shed light on the predatory behaviour sometimes associated with Chinese drinking and business culture, and criticism of her boosted awareness of the tendency to blame the victim. Moreover, these women’s willingness to pursue their cases publicly has emboldened other women in China to share their stories, helping to shed light on an issue being reckoned with by many societies worldwide.