Court rules against woman who became face of China’s #MeToo movement

Zhou Xiaoxuan, who accused CCTV host of sexual harassment, vows to appeal ‘unfair treatment’

A Chinese woman whose sexual harassment case against a popular TV host sparked a nationwide debate over #MeToo has accused a Beijing court of unfair treatment and vowed to appeal after it ruled against her.

The Haidian people’s court said in a judgment released late on Tuesday that Zhou Xiaoxuan did not meet the standard of proof in claiming that Zhu Jun, her superior at work, sexually harassed her.

Zhou, popularly known as Xianzi, had filed a lawsuit against the prominent CCTV host accusing him of groping and forcibly kissing her in 2014 when she was an intern. Zhou first went public with her accusations in 2018 in a 3,000-word social media post and she quickly became the face of the #MeToo movement in China.

“I told the court today that this incident happened when I was 21, and now I’m 28. In the last three years because of this legal case I wasn’t able to do other work. I was very sad and I couldn’t help but cried in the court today,” Zhou told the Guardian.

“I can accept all sorts of outcome, but I just want basic procedural justice,” she said, adding that she and her lawyers were deprived of the opportunity to fully put their case forward in the court.

Separately on her WeChat social media account, Zhou listed seven instances in which she implied that the court was unfair to her today.

She wrote to her supporters: “Failure is not shameful, and I am honoured to have stood with you together in the past three years … Thank you very much, everyone, I will definitely appeal.”

Earlier on Tuesday she was shoved by antagonistic bystanders as she headed to court for the second hearing of the civil case, which had been cancelled on its originally scheduled date in May.

One woman yelled “pandemic safety”, trying to prevent Zhou from speaking, while a man questioned whether it was appropriate for her to speak alone.

Many were there in support. “I think having one more person is a form of support, and form of power,” said Sophie Zhou (no relation), who said she kept her distance from the court as she saw police asking for ID numbers.

Zhou had asked for a public apology from Zhu as well as 50,000 yuan ($7,600) in damages. Zhu denies the accusations and has launched defamation proceedings – the outcome for which is unknown.

Zhou’s civil case had sat with the court for years, until the court agreed to hear it in December 2020. When she filed the suit in 2018 such complaints were treated as labour disputes, and Zhou’s was termed a “personality rights dispute”. A court rejected a request to have it shifted to a provision explicitly citing sexual harassment, after major reforms to the country’s civil code in 2020.

“I believe that justice in these basic procedures is a necessary path to take to get a fair result, and all the efforts we made before the hearing are not just for victory, but for a fundamental fairness,” Zhou wrote on Monday.

A series of sexual assault and rape accusations in recent weeks has refocused national attention on the movement. The most prominent was an accusation of sexual assault made by an Alibaba employee against her manager, but last week prosecutors determined no crime was committed. Chinese-Canadian singer Kris Wu was also arrested in Beijing on suspicion of rape over accusations made online.

In August, accusations posted online by victims led separately to the detention of a math teacher on charges of forcible molestation and the firing of a popular TV host at Hunan Television. Shanghai police, who initially declined to press charges in the latter case, have said they have reopened the investigation.

“These incidents are a part of #MeToo, without a doubt,” said Lu Pin, the founder of Feminist Voices, an online publication that was shut down by censors in 2018. “Without #MeToo, it’s impossible to imagine these types of things coming out.”

Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, said that today’s ruling was “sad but unsurprising”. “I don’t see the significance of China’s #MeToo movement as primarily in the legal realm,” she said. “But Zhou’s case has been successful in society by attracting support and encouraging women to demand their rights.”

Still, victims of sexual violence face legal and social obstacles to seeking justice.

“The messaging is quite strong … and it’s saying to people that this is going to change things,” said Darius Longarino, a research scholar at Yale Law School. “But on the ground, in the actual system, there’s still many pitfalls.”

In a recent report, Longarino and colleagues found only 83 civil cases in public databases that related to sexual harassment or molestation between 2018 and 2020. Of the 83 cases, 77 were brought by the alleged harasser against companies or the victim. Just six cases were brought by victims against a harasser.

Authorities have also targeted feminist activists and groups as part of a purge on youth and minority subcultures, censoring posts and groups. Many women are reluctant to speak out in China’s conservative society where victims can also face blame.

Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu

Contributors

Helen Davidson, Vincent Ni and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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