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Beijing court dismisses landmark #MeToo case as authorities censor discussion

Chinese court on Sept. 14 ruled against Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former television intern who became the face of China’s #MeToo movement. (Video: Reuters)
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A Beijing court on Tuesday dismissed a case filed by Zhou Xiaoxuan, whose sexual assault allegations against a prominent television host helped kick-start China’s burgeoning #MeToo movement, while censors moved quickly to shut down backlash to the decision.

In a setback to a movement already under pressure from an official crackdown on all forms of dissent, the Haidian People’s Court released a ruling late Tuesday that Zhou’s complaint against Zhu Jun, a host at state broadcaster CCTV, did not meet the burden of proof.

Zhou, 28, also known by her previous alias Xianzi, in 2018 publicly accused Zhu of groping and forcibly kissing her while she was a college intern at CCTV in 2014. Her account inspired dozens of other Chinese women to speak out, in a wave of cases that spanned media, academia, charities, technology and other sectors.

Standing outside the Beijing courthouse, where supporters yelled encouragement and gave her flowers, Zhou said she planned to appeal the decision, though she had reached the limit of what she could handle.

“I don’t think I can do anything more,” she said, getting emotional as she described three years of being at the center of one of the highest-profile #MeToo cases in the country. “I can’t do that for another three years,” she said.

Zhou had demanded a public apology as well as 50,000 yuan ($7,600) in damages from Zhu, who has denied the allegations and lodged a defamation lawsuit against his accuser.

Her case also underlines authorities’ growing anxiety over activism around women’s rights. Online discussion of the case was censored, with many comments supporting Zhou scrubbed from Weibo, WeChat and popular forums such as Douban. Several social media accounts that focus on women’s rights in China appeared to have been removed Wednesday. Beyond republishing the court’s judgment, few Chinese news outlets reported on the outcome of Zhou’s case.

Chinese women reveal sexual harassment, but #MeToo movement struggles for air

“The authorities know there will be backlash, and they cannot face the real reaction of the public,” said Lu Pin, founding editor of Feminist Voices, a Chinese feminist platform that was banned in 2018.

Amid a broadening crackdown on public debate, China’s women’s rights movement has come under fire as an alleged tool of the West to destabilize the country. In response to Tuesday’s court decision, Internet users called Zhou a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” aligned with “separatists” in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Others said she was “under foreign influence.” A prominent blogger celebrated the closing of feminist social media accounts and called on the public to sue such bloggers for their “unrestrained attacks.”

“Unfortunately, the result in Xianzi’s case is quite common for sexual harassment victims who complain in China,” said Aaron Halegua, a lawyer and author of a recent report on gender-based workplace harassment and violence in China. “The court finds that the victim does not have sufficient evidence that the harassment occurred and denies the claim, and then the victim must defend against a defamation lawsuit by the alleged harasser.”

Others criticized China’s court system as being biased against people who allege sexual assault. Last week, a court in Jinan dropped a case against a former Alibaba executive accused of rape, stating that the man’s “forced indecency” did not constitute a crime.

Zhou “had not even left the courtroom before the court released its summary on Weibo. This shows the decision had already been made a long time ago. Judgment before trial,” said Lu.

“Of course, the struggle is not over. Xianzi will appeal and MeToo’s voice will continue to be heard,” she said.

On Weibo, some supporters were able to leave Zhou encouragement. One said, “In our hearts, you have won.”

Another wrote: “You have already changed history. Thank you.”

Lyric Li in Seoul and Alicia Chen in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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