Court Rules Burden of Proof Unmet in Harassment Case, Dealing Blow to China's #MeToo Effort

A Beijing court ruled that a Chinese woman did not meet the burden of proof in claiming that her workplace superior sexually harassed her, dealing a blow to China's #MeToo effort.

Zhou Xiaoxuan was a former intern at Chinese state broadcaster CCTV and brought accusations of sexual harassment against Zhu Jun, a prominent CCTV host, in 2018. Zhou became the face of the country's #MeToo movement, but the Haidian People's Court ruled against her in the three-year-long case in a judgment released late Tuesday night.

"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.

Unidentified men and women tried to push Zhou along while she was speaking to reporters. A woman tried to keep Zhou from speaking by yelling "pandemic safety," while one man questioned if it was appropriate for her to speak alone.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Zhou Xiaoxuan
Zhou Xiaoxuan became the face of China's #MeToo movement after filing a sexual harassment case against her workplace superior. Zhou, left, also known as Xianzi, walks with a supporter before attending a hearing in her sexual harassment case against prominent television host Zhu Jun in Beijing on September 14. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

In 2018, 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.

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 ($7,600) 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victims take legal action, some people are still pushing to get justice for victims of sexual violence, even if they do not cite the #MeToo label.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 said 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 organized 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'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.

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 canceled 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 plainclothes 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 Xiaoxuan has pushed to make the court hearing a matter of public record and requested the court order Zhu to appear, citing basic legal procedures.

When she filed the suit in 2018, such complaints were treated as labor 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.

MeToo Movement Supporters
Zhou Xiaoxuan became the face of the country's #MeToo movement after going public with accusations against a prominent CCTV host in 2018. Supporters gather near a courthouse where Zhou, a former intern at China's state broadcaster CCTV, was to attend a court session in Beijing, September 14. Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo