After the #MeToo movement swept China, authorities responded with legal changes that activists and legal experts say have not yet led to real change on the ground.
A Beijing court ruled against a Chinese woman on Tuesday in a #MeToo case that wound through the courts for three years, in a blow to the tamped-down movement whose legacy remains uncertain.
The Haidian People's Court said in a judgment released late Tuesday night that Zhou Xiaoxuan, who had become the face of the country's #MeToo movement, did not meet the burden of proof in claiming that Zhu Jun, her superior at her place of work, sexually harassed her.
Zhou was a former intern at Chinese state broadcaster CCTV and went public with accusations against Zhu, a prominent CCTV host, in 2018 as dozens of women began to speak out about their past experiences of being harassed or assaulted. Since then, the movement has been largely shut down by authorities as activists found their online posts censored and faced pressure from authorities when trying to hold protests, but Zhou has continued to speak out.
“I'm very thankful for everyone, whether we win or lose, I'm very honored to have experienced these last three years,” Zhou said to reporters outside the court Tuesday afternoon, as unidentified men and women came up and tried to push her along.
One woman yelled “pandemic safety," trying to prevent Zhou from speaking, while a man questioned whether it was appropriate for her to speak alone.
A woman who tried to hold up a sign saying “Standing Together” was quickly surrounded by police and had the sign ripped out of her hand. She said later that police then asked for her national identification number.
Zhou brought the suit against Zhu to counter a suit he had already lodged against her. She accused him of groping and forcibly kissing her in 2014 and asked for a public apology as well as 50,000 yuan ( €6,575) in damages. Zhu has denied the claims.
While the movement no longer has protests or lawyers and others helping victims take legal action, some people are still pushing to get justice for victims of sexual violence, even if they do not cite the #MeToo label.
A series of sexual assault and rape accusations in recent weeks has drawn national attention. The most prominent was an accusation of sexual assault made by an Alibaba employee against two men. 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.”
After the #MeToo movement swept China, authorities responded with legal changes that activists and legal experts say have not yet led to real change on the ground. They defined sexual harassment in the country's civil code, a massive effort approved in 2020 that organised civil laws and promised certain rights to citizens.
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,” Darius Longarino, a research scholar at Yale Law School, said of the legal reforms. “But on the ground, in the actual system, there are 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.
Zhou's case lingered in the dockets for two years before a Beijing court agreed to hear it last December. The second part of the hearing, originally scheduled for May, was cancelled on the day by the court.
A few dozen supporters came on Tuesday to support Zhou, though many kept their distance because of the large number of police. Many police were in plain clothes and stood on the street filming.
“I think having one more person is a form of support, and form of power,” said Sophie Zhou, who said she kept her distance from the court as she saw police asking for ID numbers.
Throughout, Zhou has pushed to make the court hearing a matter of public record and requested the court order Zhu Jun to appear, citing basic legal procedures.
When she filed the suit in 2018, such complaints were treated as labour disputes or under other laws that didn’t relate directly to sexual harassment. Zhou’s was termed a “personality rights dispute.”
The court rejected a request by her lawyers to have her case heard under a legal provision enacted after she filed the suit that explicitly cites sexual harassment.
“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 her WeChat social media account on Monday.