Chinese court rejects sexual harassment case appeal in #MeToo blow

A Chinese court has rejected an appeal in a landmark sexual harassment case, dealing a blow to the country’s #MeToo movement.

Zhou Xiaoxuan stepped forward in 2018 to accuse the popular state TV host Zhu Jun of forcibly kissing and groping her during her 2014 internship at the broadcaster.

Zhou’s case inspired many others to share their experiences of sexual assault publicly and caused a social media storm.

A Beijing court rejected her appeal on Wednesday, citing insufficient evidence. Zhou’s case was rejected last year on similar grounds, prompting her to appeal. But the court said it had “rejected all the appeal requests by Zhou and will uphold the previous judgment”.

Police cordoned off long stretches of pavement outside the Beijing No 1 intermediate people’s court ahead of her arrival on Wednesday morning, with officers logging the details of passersby.

“I still feel a little scared and dejected,” she said ahead of the appeal. “The process of the first trial was a deep secondary injury.”

Zhou, 29, said before returning to court that her legal team would focus on getting access to more evidence, such as police transcripts of interviews with her parents after she reported the incident – which were not included in the earlier trial – and surveillance footage.

Zhou said Zhu was absent from earlier proceedings, and that while he had sued her for defamation, she was not aware of further developments in that case.

A small group of supporters came to wish Zhou good luck on Wednesday, holding up signs that said “MeToo” and balloons spelling out “All the best” in Chinese.

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“Four years have passed, and the most important thing is that we have raised this question: when a woman encounters sexual harassment in a closed space, is her pain worth paying attention to?” Zhou said to supporters. “There may be no answer today, but the most important thing is that we put this question here.”

Zhou, also known by the pseudonym Xianzi, originally sued for a public apology from Zhu and 50,000 yuan ($7,400) in damages. Her first hearing in December 2020 drew a large crowd and a significant police presence in Beijing. Reporters from foreign media outlets including AFP were dragged away by police while filming the scene.

“The process for my case has truly been too difficult,” Zhou said. “I worry that other victims fear standing up for their rights after seeing what I’ve experienced.”

But she added that with her case, “perhaps the next victim that walks into court can receive more trust”.

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Her case against Zhu was originally filed under the “personality rights” law – covering rights relating to an individual’s health and body. But her lawyers later asked for it to be considered under a new sexual harassment law that was passed in 2020.

Despite that law, many women in China are still reluctant to come forward with harassment charges, and it is rare for cases to make it to court in a legal system that places a heavy burden on the claimant.

The country’s #MeToo movement has stumbled since 2018, when a wave of women published allegations of sexual harassment against university professors. Threatened at the time by the prospect of an uncontrolled mass movement, internet censors quickly began blocking social media hashtags and keywords.