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Alibaba accuser facing lawsuits as China #MeToo backlash builds

Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former intern at China's state broadcaster CCTV, has her identification checked outside a courthouse in Beijing, on Sept. 14. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
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An employee of e-commerce giant Alibaba whose allegations of sexual assault forced a reckoning over workplace harassment is facing potential lawsuits as backlash against China’s #MeToo movement grows following a string of high-profile cases over the summer.

Chinese #MeToo advocates celebrated a win in early August when an Alibaba executive was fired and detained by police after being accused of sexually assaulting a female colleague. Last week, prosecutors dropped the case against the man whose last name is Wang, stating that his “forced indecency” did not constitute a crime.

On Tuesday, following his release from 15 days of detention, an account on Weibo claiming to be that of his wife said the couple would be “resorting to legal means” against the accuser, whose last name is Zhou.

Zhou claimed she was assaulted by Wang, her manager, during a business trip in July. Neither of their full names has been publicly released.

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“Today I am not only the wife of my unjustly accused husband but a citizen who firmly believes everyone is equal before the law and that the law will protect the real victims and punish perpetrators,” she wrote, accusing the woman of “using the public’s sympathy for women” to spread misinformation and ruin careers.

The case underlines the uphill battle feminist activists and advocates face in China, where the #MeToo movement has progressed in fits and starts in academia, the corporate sector, entertainment and tech.

Also on Tuesday, Zhou Xiaoxuan, a Chinese woman suing a prominent TV host whom she has accused of groping and forcibly kissing her, was pushed by antagonistic bystanders on her way to a court hearing.

In the Alibaba case, Zhou accused her manager of assaulting her in her hotel room during a business trip as well as turning a blind eye when a client plied her with alcohol and molested her. More than 6,000 Alibaba employees formed an internal group to express solidarity with Zhou and demand action.

Alibaba, already in deep water amid an antitrust crackdown on Chinese tech giants, vowed to stamp out workplace harassment.

Instead, however, the company opted to fire the 10 employees who allegedly leaked the internal memo over the case to media outlets.

State media outlets applauded the prosecutor’s decision to drop the case against Wang, describing the incident as “cheap witch hunting.”

Observers say the case also highlights authorities’ limited tolerance for a public movement. “The government has made it clear that truth should be decided by authorities, the prosecutors and the court, not social media,” said Tu Xianghua, a 54-year-old entrepreneur in Beijing.

Zhou has now become an online target of anti-MeToo vitriol, with Internet users calling her a “liar manipulating the public’s emotions” as well as a “crazy” woman and more derogatory terms.

“When we talk about #MeToo, we often overlook the deep-rooted patriarchal culture in China and expect all women who speak out to be perfect victims,” said Jane Tian, a 35-year-old manager at a pharmaceutical company in Hangzhou.

“But we don’t need perfect victims. We need an environment where things can be openly discussed and not stigmatized.”

Lily Kuo in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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