The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In high-profile #MeToo case, an intern takes on a celebrity TV host in China

Zhou Xiaoxuan speaks to her supporters as she arrives at a courthouse in Beijing on Wednesday. (Andy Wong/AP)
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — As a landmark #MeToo case for China opened on Wednesday, scores of young women, some traveling thousands of miles, converged on a Beijing courthouse to chant slogans and hold placards. "Together, we demand an answer for history," one read.

The answer they hoped for never came.

Minutes before midnight, judges adjourned the trial of Zhu Jin, a state television celebrity who was accused of sexual harassment by Zhou Xiaoxuan, a young intern, in a case that has invigorated a burgeoning generation of Chinese feminists and unsettled a government reflexively wary of social movements.

The court's decision to try the case another day came after a 10-hour session that was closed to the public even though both the accuser and accused asked for an open trial. Censors worked during the day to scrub much — but not all — discussion of the case that lit up social media. The trial and the demonstration outside the courthouse went completely unreported in state media on Thursday. One report by the independent financial news magazine Caijing was taken down shortly after it was published.

For Zhou and her supporters who considered the lawsuit a barometer for progress in gender equality in China, the outlook was bleak, but they left a small mark in history.

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Li Tingting waited in the cold Wednesday night with 100 others for hours before Zhou, also known by the nickname "Xianzi," emerged from the courthouse. Zhou said her lawyers asked the judges to recuse themselves and adjourn. It was a stalling tactic before a probable defeat, Li said. The case could resume in a few weeks.

"The crowd was silent, but we are not feeling too pessimistic," said Li, a well-known feminist activist. "The verdict isn't important. What was important for our movement was the moment, the process, the involvement of people who gathered physically from across the country and the foundation we've laid."

Zhou shook China in 2018 with allegations against one of the most recognizable faces on Chinese television. Inspired by women coming forward to accuse Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, Zhou published an essay accusing Zhu, the host of a popular celebrity interview program and a member of a top political advisory body to China's government, of groping and forcibly kissing her in a dressing room in 2016 when she was a 23-year-old intern on his show at China Central Television. Zhu has denied the accusation and has sued Zhou, who is seeking a publicly apology and $7,600 in damages, for defamation.

While the #MeToo movement swept around the world in recent years, Zhou's allegations broke ground in China. She presented records of a contemporaneous police complaint she filed in 2016 and her case gained traction online because she moved ahead with a lawsuit even though a deluge of other allegations against famous men in the nonprofit, academic and business worlds — and even a prominent Buddhist monk — fizzled out, were settled out of court or suppressed by censors.

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Zhou's lawsuit was always a long shot. She said police discouraged her from filing a complaint in 2018. Chinese sexual harassment lawsuits were rarely heard of before Zhou's, and judges have sided with the accuser only once: Last year, a social worker in Sichuan province successfully sued her nonprofit employer. In June, China passed a law that specified what constitutes sexual harassment.

On Wednesday, government censors took down posts about the case on the popular forum Douban and WeChat, while Zhou's supporters flooded the platforms hoping their sheer volume would overcome the algorithms.

Outside the courthouse, plainclothes police milled among the crowd. Uniformed officials hustled away foreign news crews and asked the young demonstrators to stop holding signs or filming videos to share on social media, according to people present.

The atmosphere was less tense than some of China's politically sensitive cases — and at times fun, Li said. By nightfall, the crowd had grown to 100 people, and Zhou's online supporters nationwide — including a core group of about 2,500 members in five chat groups — used apps to deliver milk tea and hamburgers to supporters holding vigil. One group of supporters arrived from Guangzhou in southern China; some flew out the same night.

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"The case was 99 percent likely to end in defeat, but because everybody was watching and persisting outside the courthouse, the judges at least delayed the result so we get another shot at that 1 percent," said a woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she organizes online support for Zhou, which can be politically sensitive. "It's difficult to get a fair, open trial in China, but Xianzi showed you can choose the legal route. You at least have a chance, even if it's not big."

In a statement on social media early Thursday, Zhou said that she was exhausted but that the fight wasn't over. "The sound of the judge's gavel to adjourn was the sound caused by all the friends who had come from afar and waited outside the courtroom and gathered in the night," she said. "You all are the light, and for more than 10 hours, we appeared in court as one."

It was significant that the court accepted the case at all, said Lu Pin, a longtime feminist campaigner who worked in China until 2015, when the government detained five of her colleagues while she was traveling in the United States, where she now lives.

"Has Chinese society changed since the #MeToo movement? I can't say," Lu said. "But 20 years ago, society was willfully ignorant or aggressively denying sexual harassment and rape culture. Today, we've at least forced the debate."

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