China's Landmark Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Mired in Power, Politics

2020-12-04
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China's Landmark Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Mired in Power, Politics Given flowers by supporters, Zhou Xiaoxuan is moved to tears outside the court, Dec. 2, 2020.
AFP



A landmark sexual harassment case involving a top Chinese state-run TV personality and a former intern that was inspired by the #MeToo hashtag campaign and the victims of Harvey Weinstein is mired in uncertainty amid an ongoing crackdown on the feminist movement in China.

The lawsuit brought by former TV intern Zhou Xiaoxuan against former TV host Zhu Jun has stalled after the defendant failed to show up, the Financial Times reported.

Zhou, who is now 27, went viral on Chinese social media in 2018 after she wrote a long account of her alleged sexual harassment by Zhu in a dressing room during her internship at state-run CCTV in 2014.

The case finally came to court in Beijing's Haidian district on Wednesday, with crowds of supporters, many of them young women, showing up to support Zhou, who goes by the nickname Xianzi.

Zhou accused Zhu, who presented the CCTV New Year TV gala for two decades until the allegations surfaced, of groping her and forcibly kissing her during a conversation about a potential career at the state broadcaster. She said in her online account that the assault only ended because a guest came into the room.

Zhu has denied the allegations, and has filed a defamation lawsuit against Zhou over the allegations.

However, the Financial Times reported that the hearing dragged on for 10 hours before adjourning with no verdict after Zhu failed to show up.

Zhou told reporters after the hearing that she was "very tired," but had earlier said the fact that the case came to court at all was meaningful for women's rights in China.

"We have to believe that even if history repeats itself, things will definitely progress," she said before going into the court building.

However, it was unclear after Wednesday's hearing how the case would now progress, the Financial Times reported.

When she posted her account to social media platform Sina Weibo in 2018, Zhou cited the #MeToo hashtag campaign as her "guiding light."

She reported the incident to the police, who began looking at security footage, but later dropped the case amid concerns that it would "harm the positive image" of the TV personality and CCTV in the eyes of the public.

The post was later deleted.

'Not optimistic'

Zhang Jing, New York-based founder of Women's Rights in China, said she wasn't optimistic about the outcome of the case.

"It's particularly hard, given the current situation in mainland China, to have a feminist movement," Zhang told RFA. "I'm not optimistic about the outcome of the court case."

"It's pretty impossible to prosecute powerful people, whether it be for financial reasons, or because of sexual harassment and domestic violence," she said.

"Unless the person has powerful backing, they will be regarded as politically suspect, as disloyal to the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party and to Xi Jinping, and will be dispensed with," she said.

There were signs on Sina Weibo on Friday that such a process had already begun.

"The only way this [case] will be meaningful is if the evidence is heard from both sides in court," user @zhaohaoyao-Moonfans wrote on Friday.

"So why is the discussion now focusing around the woman's politics?"

Zhang said that anyone standing up for women's rights in China is remarkable, because the price paid for such activism is far higher than their counterparts in liberal democracies.

Patriarchal power

Xia Ming, a professor of political science at New York's City University, appeared to agree.

"The Chinese government is basically a patriarchal power structure, and the entire political system is highly repressive of women and feminism," Xia said.

"It is not surprising that this power structure and the entire establishment's reaction to the #MeToo movement is to suppress it," he said.

"The most important thing in all sexual assault and harassment cases is the need to define power relations," Xia said.

"The biggest problem in China is that there is now a powerful elite that combines power and money," he said. "Lots of women are wary of that [combination]."

He said changes to China's Civil Code that take effect next year expanding the definition of sexual harassment still aren't enough to protect women.

But he said Zhao's lawsuit had started a global conversation.

"Public pressure is probably the most important factor that can promote progress in China," Xia said.

Women face reprisals

Women who campaign for human rights in China face reprisals from the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that can include enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, sexual abuse, and torture, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said in a 2019 report.

The CCP has targeted civil organizations including the Beijing Yirenping Center, a public health and anti-discrimination NGO, the Weizhiming Women’s Center in Hangzhou, which had run campaigns against gender discrimination, violence against women and sexual harassment, and the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center.

While the #MeToo movement sparked a conversation in 2018, mainly online, about sexual harassment in China, it also led to some backlash and widespread censorship, including the closure of the Sina Weibo and Tencent WeChat accounts of the group Feminist Voices, the report said.

The wives, sisters and mothers of detained prisoners of conscience have faced harsh retaliation, CHRD said, while the authorities have also hit back at campaigning women and their children with detention, abduction, housing eviction, restricted movement, travel bans, and constant surveillance and monitoring.

The detention of five Chinese feminists detained ahead of International Women's Day 2015 as they planned a public campaign against sexual harassment on public transport prompted an international outcry.

Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan were released "on bail" in 2015 after being detained for several weeks on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," and have faced restrictions on their freedom of movement since.

Reported by Xiao Yibing for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Malik Wang and Hoi Man Wu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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