On May 21, authorities abruptly postponed the second hearing of Zhou Xiaoxuan’s landmark #MeToo case. “We were so shocked. We were already near the courthouse when we received the notice,” Zhou told the South China Morning Post. The night before, Zhou, also known by her online alias Xianzi, had published a lengthy WeChat essay describing the obstacles she faced in- and outside of court, as well as her hopes for the #MeToo movement. CDT has translated portions of her essay below.
In 2018, Zhou published an essay alleging that Zhu Jun, a famous host at state broadcaster CCTV, assaulted her while she was a college intern for his show in 2014. After Zhu sued her for damaging his reputation, she filed a civil suit against him, explicitly framing it as an “experiment” that would test legal protections for victims of sexual assault. After a two year delay, the first hearing in Zhou’s case opened sensationally on December 2, 2020. Over 100 of her supporters gathered outside of Haidian People’s Court, some holding signs demanding “an answer from history.” One supporter tossed Zhou a scroll that read “[I] will win,” the same phrase Japanese journalist Shiori Ito displayed after her victory in one of Japan’s most prominent #MeToo cases. The hearing—which lasted 10 hours and was closed to the public and press—ended inconclusively, and Zhu Jun, the accused, did not appear.
On January 1, 2021 China’s new Civil Code came into effect. The Civil Code codified sexual harassment for the first time, providing #MeToo activists hope that they might find redress in court. Yet just days after the Civil Code came into effect, a court ruled against a #MeToo plaintiff in a similar case—forcing a former college intern to pay a powerful media figure restitution for slandering him. In March, a Shanghai court ruled in favor of the victim in sexual harassment case, but the case seems to be the exception rather than the rule, as victims often face significant legal barriers to proving their claims in court. As Zhou told The New Yorker, “According to the law, only a few sexual-harassment incidents have ever happened in China. Do you believe that?”
In the essay, published the day before the trial’s scheduled date, Xianzi addressed the court’s “illegal and unreasonable” treatment of the case, scurrilous claims made about her by Zhang Yang (a reporter who goes by the Weibo handle @一个有点理想的记者, which Xianzi repeatedly shortens to 理记), and her thoughts on the #MeToo movement’s future. CDT has translated two sections of her essay, “Xianzi: Before the Second Hearing, All That Has Occured In- and Outside of Court.” In the first, Zhou listed the “illegal and unreasonable challenges,” she has faced:
After the first court hearing on December 2, the internet was full of speculation and distortions about the trial and the facts of my sexual harassment case. The best way to clear things up is to tell you the facts. I’ll tell you what happened on Danleng Street at the Haidian Court on that frigid evening, beyond the warmth of the crowd gathered at the court gates. And I’ll tell you about all our efforts, after the first hearing, to secure a second.
First of all, after the December 2 hearing, we informed the public of our request that the three judges recuse themselves and allow a trial with assessors instead. As a result, we encountered various accusations of “disrupting justice and refusing to follow legal procedures.” In fact, the reason why I decided to prosecute in 2018 is because I believe in justice and wanted an open, fair, and just trial. Facing accusations and slander, I had no choice but to make public my reasons for requesting the judges’ recusal so that everyone could judge for themselves how I’ve been treated in court, exactly what sort of trial this is, and whether my appeals deserve an answer.
The trial lasted more than 10 hours, and we encountered a lot of illegal and unreasonable challenges:
1. In January 2019, we applied for the case to be reclassified as a “dispute over liability for damages from sexual harassment,” but it was not until December 2020, at the start of the hearing, that the judges ruled against the change and cited their absurd reasons.
2. After the pre-trial hearing in January 2019, we asked for a new DNA test on the dress I wore on the day of the incident, but it was not until December 2 that it was rejected.
3. After the pre-trial hearing in January 2019, we asked the court to broadcast the surveillance footage from the hallway on June 9, 2014. However, despite the inclusion of multiple surveillance video screenshots in the dossier, Haidian Public Security said “the surveillance video has never been retrieved.” We asked the court to continue to inquire with the police, but the court refused.
4. Both my parents were present to testify that on June 13, 2016, the Haidian Public Security criminal division asked them to sign a document promising not to pursue the case. We asked the police to obtain my parents’ records, but the request was rejected by the court.
5. In notes taken by the defendant’s lawyer, Shang, the classmate who brought me into the dressing room and eventually became Zhu Jun’s witness, stated unequivocally that in June 2014 he was studying in a different city, did not participate in the recording of the program, did not know who I was, had basically never communicated with me, and never brought me into the dressing room. After screenshots of surveillance footage taken from the hallway outside the dressing room proved Shang’s testimony to be untrue, we requested that Shang be brought before the court to explain his perjury and find the facts of the case. The collegial panel rejected the request during the hearing.
6. Over the past two years, we have repeatedly asked the court to summon Zhu Jun to attend in person. The collegial panel ruled it was “not necessary,” but gave neither an explanation of their reasoning nor its legal basis.
7. According to Articles 15 and 16 of the “People’s Assessors Law,” we requested people’s assessors to participate in a seven-person collegial panel.
8. I’ve asked for an open trial but have been consistently refused and can only hold my tongue as the defendant smears me. […]
Her essay concluded with a reflection on the #MeToo movement, sexual assault victims’ place in Chinese society, and the source of her persistence:
Since the first hearing in December, the accusations aimed at me have gone from “she’s a liar” to “she’s attacking the system.” My friends outside Haidian People’s Court, anti-sexual harassment activists there to support victims, have been falsely portrayed as so-called “foreign forces”—and this doesn’t even include the endless distortion and rumor-mongering of 理记, who serves as Zhu Jun’s voice in the public arena.
First of all, my expectation that we would gather in front of the Haidian People’s Court was made public from the very start. I only did this because as an anti-sexual harassment activist myself, I’d previously stood outside courtrooms expressing my support for and belief in victims. I believe that supporting voices can give those trapped in tough spots comfort and courage.
For a long time now, society has used sex-shaming and feminist-slandering to expel women’s voices from the public square—all with the goal of forcing us to turn our backs and retreat into our miserable experiences. #MeToo’s greatest gift to the public hasn’t been the increase in sexual harassment cases or the amendment to the Civil Code, but rather that our collective voices smashed the shame of sex and “failure.” To experience gender violence, to be unable to protect oneself in an unequal power structure, is no longer a form of humiliation. To write of harm, to speak of harm, to see—to treasure!—the bravery that exists alongside harm is, in its very essence, a break with the value judgments of the past.
I hope everybody sees it this way. I hope that everyone’s presence can send a type of strength to those experiencing gender violence and shame at this very moment: your experience is not isolated, your experience is not shameful, this is not your fault.
When we all stood together on Danleng Street, it was an expression of support: support for those who speak out, support for the weak, support for the smashing of shame. I hope that this cry is loud enough. It need not reach the imperial halls, but must ring through the darkest of nights and reach the loneliest of corners.
To remove sexual assault victims’ voices from mainstream narratives actually reinforces the value judgement that women should be ashamed of sexual assault—it even binds women’s chastity to the nation, affirming that a woman’s defilement is the nation’s shame and is thus a reality that should not be spoken of.
#MeToo became a global movement because gender inequality is universal. That it inevitably surges into a call for equality is a sign that the victims are awakening. This is precisely why #MeToo can leap borders and create new narratives told by the victims themselves.
To treat victims’ histories as things that can be casually covered up removes victims of sexual assault from mainstream narratives. Similarly, it removes vulnerable groups’ rights from mainstream narratives. Because power always favors vested interests, as soon as vested interests bind themselves to public symbols, they occupy a place beyond criticism.
Why do 理记 and others repeatedly stress that Zhu Jun hosted the CCTV Spring Festival Gala and other shows? Because once they bind a host to the “grand narrative,” they can get onlookers to believe a bizarre story: A 21-year-old female college student, in order to carry out some conspiracy, took an internship at CCTV. She went to the police to file a sham report before graduating college. She then laid low for four years, coming forward only after Zhu Jun had retired from the Spring Festival Gala. She enticed internet platforms into blocking relevant information and issuing censorship directives. She forced CCTV to ban Zhu Jun before filing a lawsuit to consummate this defamation conspiracy.
This is a sci-fi story. But it can get onlookers to go beyond logic because it riles up emotions. It is extremely difficult for the victim to have her voice heard: I accepted almost every interview request, ranging from establishment media to bloggers. And I have been disappointed once and again as the stories were taken down or prevented from publication by censors.
What Zhu Jun’s lawyers wrote in their brief parrots the public’s attacks against me: that I was seeking the spotlight and using this lawsuit to hype up. But since when can a victim of sexual harassment trade on her identity for fame? Since I came forward in 2018, my identity has been exposed. My family, my partner, my high school classmates, and even people who chat with me on Weibo have all become targets of abuse. In the current atmosphere, is it some kind of personal accomplishment to be the victim of sexual harassment? If it’s possible to capitalize victimhood, then who am I to receive such an honor?
There is a photo of me and Shiori Ito that 理记 used to imply that I took part in feminist activities in China and abroad. The truth is, the photo was taken after Shiori Ito’s book-signing in Beijing. I went up with her, along with other readers, to have my copy signed. Upon learning who I was, she gave me a big hug because she had been paying attention to my case. This is the friendship and support that victims share. I have been speaking up publicly because I want people to pay attention to individual cases. I want to increase the visibility of gender issues and sexual harassment victims. This is volunteer work that exacts a high cost in emotional labor but returns no profit whatsoever. Yet somehow it has been distorted into profit-seeking behavior.
In fact, since 2018, carrying on with two lawsuits has been draining my finances, my emotions, and my time. As for the stigmatizing of victims and attacks on my family and friends? Now that is truly costless. Addressing a ridiculous rumor requires a huge amount of effort. Beyond navigating all the procedural hurdles in court, it is simply impossible to address each and every online attack, scattered across countless platforms and accounts.
I am keenly aware that as the environment for public discourse deteriorates, we will face even more difficulties this time in court. If people show up again to support me, it will be perceived as provocation; if no one shows up, people will say that “their guilty consciences kept my supporters from coming back.”
What they want is to use fear and intimidation to separate us, to force us to stand alone, so that our tearful voices will sound no more echoes and disappear into the void.
My memories from December 2 are bittersweet. Sometimes I even think that I should be standing with everyone outside in the chilly wind instead of sitting in court, unable to eat for more than 10 hours, being driven to the verge of physical and mental breakdown, all while enduring humiliation from the opposing counsel and the unabashed apathy of the court.
But I had to go on. I had to go to a courtroom where the accused never bothered to show up and expose my body’s most shameful memories in front of complete strangers, waiting for them to judge whether I was being truthful enough. I’d always believed that this was my duty to the public: I have to try my best and accept the answer handed down to me.
But none of this is easy. When I filed my case in 2018, I was hopeful I would win. Now, in 2021, I still believe in myself when I walk into the court, but I can only hope for some due process and the basic decency that any human being deserves.
“Do not go gentle into that good night.” I know this poem. What I didn’t know was how you are supposed to feel when you have to go forward like this. Halfway through the lawsuit, I am nearly emotionally numb. I only manage to carry on because it is the reasonable thing to do.
For anyone who has been hurt, the pain will always be there. No matter the result of my case, victims of gender-based violence will still have to deal with their own hardships. And the darker the moment, the more those who are suffering need to be hugged tight.
I will carry on with my lawsuit. I will continue to demand fair treatment. I will move forward with courage, knowing that I was once hugged tight. [Chinese]
To read more of Xianzi’s writing, see this 2018 essay by Xianzi on her conviction that “gentleness does change the world, as long as it’s sharp and persistent.”
Translation by Yakexi, John Chan, and Joseph Brouwer