The women said #MeToo in China, now they are being sued

A growing number of men in China are using defamation lawsuits to counter claims of sexual harassment. Women are thinking twice about speaking out. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - In a small courtroom in Beijing, supporters of Ms Wang Qi huddled together, awaiting the start of China's first #MeToo trial. Ms Wang had accused her former boss of sexually harassing her.

But it was not Ms Wang's former boss who was on trial. It was Ms Wang herself.

Mr Zhou Fei, a top official at the China branch of the World Wildlife Fund, sued Ms Wang in August last year, accusing his former employee of defaming him when she wrote in a social media post that he forcibly kissed her during a work trip.

"If one doesn't make a sacrifice for the protection of women's rights and interests," she said last year, before her lawyer warned her she risked further defamation claims by talking, "there will definitely be no progress".

In China, the accuser can quickly become the accused.

At least six men publicly accused of sexual assault or harassment have sued their accusers, or people who have publicised those accusers' claims, for defamation in the past year.

In fact, of just 34 lawsuits filed in China between 2010 and 2017 related to sexual harassment in the workplace, 19 of those were filed by the accused perpetrators, according to the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Centre, an advocacy group.

More than half were filed by accused harassers against their employers, citing unfair dismissal or harm to their reputations. In one case, a victim had to compensate her harasser for damaging his eardrum after she slapped him. Women who said they had been harassed filed only two of the lawsuits.

As the #MeToo movement has spread, men in the United States, France, India and elsewhere have turned to the courts, sometimes successfully arguing that they had been defamed by their accusers or by the media.

The most famous example might be Geoffrey Rush, the Australian actor, who in April won at least US$608,000 (S$823,132) from The Daily Telegraph newspaper in Australia.

But #MeToo activists say China represents an extreme example of using courts to suppress accusations. That can make women think twice about going public in a highly patriarchal society that often shames them for speaking out, the activists say.

The government has enacted laws banning sexual harassment but does not define the term. Enforcement is poor. Defamation laws are stacked in favour of plaintiffs, with a greater burden of proof falling on the victim. If she fails, she is presumed to be "subjectively at fault".

Victims are often pressured to stay silent, said Ms Li Ying, a lawyer and the director of the Yuanzhong Gender Development Centre. "Our entire society is still biased, and stigmatises victims of sexual harassment," she said.

Perhaps the most famous example of a #MeToo defamation suit in China is the one filed by Mr Richard Liu, the e-commerce tycoon. Mr Liu, founder of online retailer, is suing two Chinese bloggers for commenting on allegations that he raped a Chinese student at the University of Minnesota last year after a business dinner.

Mr Liu, who has not been charged with a crime, is demanding US$436,000 plus legal expenses and an apology.

Last year, Ms Zhou Xiaoxuan became the face of China's #MeToo movement after she accused Mr Zhu Jun, an anchor for China Central Television, the state-run broadcaster, of sexually assaulting her in 2014.

Last year, Mr Zhu filed a defamation suit against her describing her accusations as "blatantly fabricated and viciously spread" and seeking about US$95,000 in damages.

Ms Zhou countersued, claiming damage to her dignity.

Many of those difficulties have played out in the defamation trial of Ms Wang, the former World Wildlife Fund employee. Women's rights activists call it the first trial over sexual harassment since the #MeToo movement emerged in China.

In July last year, Ms Wang wrote on Weibo that "a certain leader in WWF surnamed Zhou" kissed her after a drunken night on March 14, 2016 during a work trip. She resigned from her job in 2017 after being diagnosed with depression, she said.

Some people asked her why she was making a big fuss over just a kiss. Her friends warned her not to talk about the incident, telling her she had to "be careful".

"I am just angry," Ms Wang wrote. "I have no ability to take him to court."

Ms Wang said that in the wake of her social-media posts, dozens of women wrote to her, "saying they had similar encounters but they didn't dare to speak up".

Mr Zhou did not respond to requests for comment made through the WWF and did not answer calls to his mobile phone.

Ultimately, Mr Zhou prevailed in China's first #MeToo trial. This week, the court sided with him and against Ms Wang. Though she will not have to pay him damages, the court ordered her to apologise to him and to delete her accusatory posts.

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