Thursday, August 18

“Instead, I’m the criminal”: China’s MeToo figure speaks after case fails | #MeToo movement

SInside a Beijing court late at night last month, Zhou Xiaoxuan and his lawyers made a swift decision. His years-long effort to seek justice for his alleged sexual harassment by one of the country’s hottest celebrities was clearly not going to go through with it. In a brief statement, the court ruled that it had not presented sufficient evidence.

On Weibo, he wrote to his followers with a list of criticisms of the trial and the process. “Failure is not shameful, and I am honored to have been together with you for the past three years … Thank you all so much, I will definitely appeal.”

The next day, they closed their social media accounts.

“It’s as if the only people who could speak were the other side,” he tells The Guardian, through a translator. “It’s the same feeling from 2014 [the year of the alleged assault]: people who tell you that you are not important and that you should shut up. Like I’m not someone who lost their case in the sexual harassment case, but I’m the criminal. “

It’s been a few weeks after that long day at court, and the furor around this young woman who never planned to be famous is starting to subside. Cut off from communicating with her followers and planning her next move, Zhou, known by her nickname Xianzi, speaks with determination.

In the seven years since the alleged incident and three since he made his claims public, Xianzi, now 28, rejects the descriptor he has been given: the face of China’s #MeToo movement. But years later, he now feels the “responsibility” to continue. “I can’t even imagine how we all insisted for so long,” he says.

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“For others, the fact that we lost the case is very frustrating, but for me, this is the result of each person doing their best and making every effort. This is a miracle.”

From shame to protest

Xianzi did not plan for his accusations to go viral. In mid-2018, when many women in China started sharing their own #MeToo stories online, she saw that a close friend had posted her own story on WeChat.

“Back then, we still had those strong feelings of shame,” she says. “I told her that I thought she was very brave and that I hoped to write an article too, stay with her, support her and share the shame. Just to let you know that what you wrote was not in vain. “

But Xianzi’s 3,000-character essay on Zhu Jun, a famous state broadcasting host and a member of China’s political advisory body, would never go unnoticed, even as censors went to work on the flood of stories online. Its publication, and a later one, spread like wildfire on China’s social networks.

Xianzi's supporters gather outside the court during a hearing on his sexual harassment case in Beijing.
Xianzi’s supporters gather outside the court during a hearing on his sexual harassment case in Beijing. Photograph: Roman Pilipey / EPA

In it, she alleged that in 2014 Zhu Jun sexually harassed her, forcibly touching and kissing her for almost an hour when she went to his dressing room to try to interview him. She was a 21-year-old intern on his show, and she says she was terrified and couldn’t respond.

The next day he went to the police to report him but, he says, they told him he was a famous person with a good reputation and “positive energy.” for the country, so you should leave it alone. They also contacted his parents, party members with government jobs, and warned them that he should not speak.

“What they did was deny my existence,” he says.

“It was like telling me: what you feel and what hurts is less important than the other person. That your social impact is less important than that of the other person. In 2014, I was a university student, I didn’t know anything and I gave up easily ”.

After Xianzi’s trial came out, Zhu, who vigorously denies the allegations, sued her for defamation and damages for 650,000 RMB ($ 100,000). She responded for “violation of personality rights,” using the only law available at the time, as China had not yet enacted legislation on sexual harassment. Attempts by The Guardian to contact Zhu, who has not spoken publicly about the case since 2018, were unsuccessful. The defamation case is still active.

The civil case went through two delayed and ultimately unsuccessful trials. The judicial experience was frustrating for Xianzi, and she claims that she was denied sufficient opportunities to speak and that supporting evidence was rejected. Observers and the press were banned, and Zhu’s presence was not mandatory. The court also denied his request to modify his case to use the enacted law against sexual harassment.

In the lengthy process, Xianzi’s case became one of the most watched in China, despite closed-door hearings and online censorship, attracting international attention and illuminating China’s online feminist movement. Supporters defied the heavy police presence outside of court to come forward with posters of support.

‘They don’t even need a reason to ban you’

Outside of a previous hearing, Yang Ruiqi, a third-year college student, told The Guardian that the #MeToo movement had been an inspiration. It had made her “realize that the things that made me feel uncomfortable before were wrong, it wasn’t because I was being overly sensitive.”

But Xianzi also provoked anger. She was abused and trolled online, harassed, called a liar and humiliated, even accused of working for a foreign power. When she arrived for her last day in court, she was pushed around by antagonistic passersby who tried to prevent her from speaking, while a man asked her if it was appropriate for her to speak alone.

“Public opinion, the attacks actually bothered me,” he says. “[But] it is not a threat, people who attack me online probably don’t dare to hurt me offline.

“They attacked me personally, but for me, the more hurt I am, the more I want to insist on things … It is more meaningful to work hard in this bad situation.”

A day after Xianzi’s case was dismissed, the Weibo account with which he had accumulated followers and communicated with supporters and victims was suspended.

A supporter holds up a #MeToo sign outside court in Beijing.
A supporter holds up a #MeToo sign outside court in Beijing. Photograph: Florence Lo / Reuters

“When you talk about feminism on the Internet, it is very easy to get banned and it has always been that way, they don’t even need a reason to ban you,” she says.

Amid an ongoing purge of online expression and subculture groups, the persecution and censorship of feminists and feminist organizations for years has continued, with cyberattacks and hoardings linked to rising nationalism on Chinese social media. In April, in response to waves of online attacks against women, social media platforms closed the accounts of victims and their supporters.

With high rates of violence against women and gender discrimination, sexual harassment in the workplace, and general complaints of lack of compliance or accountability, the Xianzi case was being watched closely by women across the country who felt that the system did not support them. There were some victories during the heyday of the #MeToo speech, but there was still a long way to go.

In reality, very few cases go to court. Legal analysts have noted a high burden of proof and general requirements for physical evidence. A week before the court dismissed Xianzi’s case, prosecutors dropped a case against an Alibaba manager accused of sexually assaulting an employee, saying he committed “forced indecency” but did not constitute a crime.

Xianzi says he has no regrets for bringing his charges or taking legal action.

She says that working on the appeal regarding her sexual harassment case is consuming her days, but that the conversation that the movement – and her case – has started has been worth it, even if it is unsuccessful.

“People are willing to speak publicly about what happened to them and share their experiences,” he says. “The fact that we can discuss it publicly is already very valuable. You can not only comfort other women, but also make the general public understand more about sexual harassment and sexual assault. This is the most important thing: the young women no longer feel guilty or ashamed ”.

Additional information from Chi Hui Lin

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