Jingyao Settles #MeToo Case Against Liu Qiangdong

Just two days before the civil trial of one of China’s biggest #MeToo cases was scheduled to begin, the two sides announced on Saturday that the case had been settled for an undisclosed sum. Liu Jingyao, the plaintiff, had accused the billionaire founder of JD.com Liu Qiangdong (Richard Liu) of raping her in 2018 when she was a student at the University of Michigan. After a years-long battle in the American legal system and in the Chinese media, feminists have hailed this latest development as an incremental if unsatisfying step forward in the struggle against gender-based violence

Xinmei Shen and Yaling Jiang from the South China Morning Post reported on the joint statement announcing the settlement:

“The incident between Ms Jingyao Liu and Mr Richard Liu in Minnesota in 2018 resulted in a misunderstanding that has consumed substantial public attention and brought profound suffering to the parties and their families,” Florin Roebig, a law firm representing the plaintiff Liu, said in a statement on Sunday.

“Today, the parties agreed to set aside their differences, and settle their legal dispute in order to avoid further pain and suffering caused by the lawsuit,” the firm said. It added that there will not be any further comment from all parties involved.

JD.com founder Liu, however, issued a separate statement on Sunday, apologising to his wife Zhang Zetian, and thanking her for tolerance and support. “I hope that my life and work can go back to normal as soon as possible,” he said. [Source]

The settlement left many surprised and struggling to judge culpability in the case. Liu Jingyao told The New York Times in 2019 that she would never settle because that would entail signing a non-disclosure agreement. Although likely, it is not clear whether she was forced to sign one for this settlement. “She said she wanted to fight to the very end, but it’s very difficult,” Chinese feminist activist Liang Xiaowen told the BBC, adding “It is a relief to her that she settled, but she feels guilty that she cannot see it to the end. She is very grateful for everyone who believed in her, and she says she would try her best to help others in the same situation.” Some questioned whether the translation of the word “misunderstanding” in the settlement statement was also a PR tactic by the defendant in order to undercut the rape accusation. Lili Pike at Grid News described how different audiences interpreted the statement:

Sara Liao, an assistant professor of media studies at Penn State, said the debate reflected different interpretations and translations of the brief statement that accompanied the settlement, and which was released by both parties. Liao said feminists and groups who sympathize with Jingyao emphasized language that referred to the “differences” between the two parties, who had chosen to “settle their legal dispute.” Meanwhile, Jingyao’s detractors latched on to the line that the 2018 incident “resulted in a misunderstanding,” as a way of suggesting that Jingyao was admitting that her claim itself had been a “misunderstanding” and that she had been motivated by compensation all along.

“This debate relates to the long-existing victim-shaming associated with rape and sexual harassment,” said Liao, “but also reflects the powerful PR campaigns from [JD.com] and the prevalent misogynistic culture in China.” [Source]

The power differential between defendant Liu Qiangdong and plaintiff Liu Jingyao was a constant theme throughout the legal battle. At the time of the incident in 2018, Liu Qiangdong was 45 and Liu Jingyao was 21. According to depositions and testimony from several individuals, he pressured her to drink an excessive amount of alcohol at an otherwise all-male business dinner party and forcibly groped her during a shared limo ride home before raping her later that night. As evidence was being compiled, video and audio clips of Liu Jingyao’s accounts of the incident, edited to undercut her claims, spread over Chinese social media in what many of her supporters claim was part of a coordinated PR campaign to sway public opinion in Liu Qiangdong’s favor. While he stepped down as CEO of JD.com in April, he has since cashed out nearly one billion dollars worth of shares and remains among the 150 richest people in the world. Liu Jingyao was forced to drop out of school and continues to suffer from PTSD and constant misogynist attacks online. 

As Shen Lu and Rebecca Feng from The Wall Street Journal reported, many of Liu Jingyao’s supporters remained steadfast in their support:

Ms. Liu’s supporters, who had planned a rally for her in Minneapolis after Monday’s opening statements, expressed support for her decision to settle.

On Sunday afternoon, about 10 of Ms. Liu supporters gathered in front of the Hennepin County Government Center, the site of the court, holding signs and chanting in Chinese: “We resist drinking culture. We say no to victim-blaming. We stand with you, Jingyao.”

Anna Zhao, a 28-year-old graduate student in Washington state, left home at 4 a.m. Sunday for a flight and arrived in Minneapolis just in time for the rally. “If this is the last rally, I have to be here for her,” said Ms. Zhao, who is a Chinese national and attended the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate during the same period as Ms. Liu. [Source]

Outside the Minnesota district courthouse where the trial was set to take place, a group of Liu Jingyao’s supporters described how their solidarity was important for the feminist movement, regardless of the outcome, and how her case has helped them grow as feminists, too:

To Jingyao’s supporters, the settlement was a “common victory.” One supporter named Gigi told The Guardian that “Jingyao decided this case had way more details to be revealed through the [legal] process and she was willing to take it to court,” adding, “With so many #MeToo survivors coming forward, we can humanize the cases, we see them, and they don’t need to be the perfect victim. We have come a long way.” Amy Qin and Chang Che from The New York Times described how Jingyao’s persistence in pursuing justice through the legal system fostered a broader public conversation on sexual harassment

“One of the most important things that emerged from Jingyao’s case is that it has been discussed widely by the public. I think that’s been hugely important for Chinese women and Chinese society more broadly,” said Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist based in New York. “It exposed the role of wealth and power in cases of sexual assault and exposed the sexual violence embedded in Chinese drinking culture.”

[…] In a post on her personal WeChat account, Zhou Xiaoxuan, who last year lost a landmark #MeToo case in a Chinese court […], lauded Ms. Liu for her “dedication” and “persistence.”  

[…] “Jingyao could have settled this under the table a long time ago but she fought for four years so that it could be a public outcome,” said [Liang Xiaowen, a Chinese feminist activist and lawyer in New York]. “We are all grateful for what she has done in helping raise awareness about rape myths, victim blaming culture and toxic drinking culture. And we still have a lot more to do.” [Source]

Another supporter of Liu Jingyao stated that, rather than simply moving on, people should use the settlement as a starting point to understand how survivors of sexual violence by powerful men can successfully fight for their rights and attempt to recover their lives. She added: “The system is rigged, that’s just how the world is. But if you make an effort to improve it, no matter what the outcome, you can have a clear conscience.” In a statement released after the settlement, the Support Jingyao Feminist Group urged continued solidarity and action to protect Jingyao and those who speak up in her defense:

[W]e need to continue our efforts to resist and correct patriarchal interpretations of the settlement. The result of the settlement does not protect Jingyao from the stigmatization of domestic public opinion, nor does it reduce the censorship to which supporters and organizers may be subjected. Many feminist activists and volunteers have thrust themselves into the public and exposed themselves to vulnerable environments by supporting this case. [Source]

Liu Jingyao, like many other public #MeToo figures in China, weathered censorship, suppression, and victim-bashing. Her campaigners have stated that many of their social media accounts and posts linked to her case were deleted by government censors seeking to silence their voices. In August, a Beijing court rejected the latest appeal of Zhou Xiaoxuan, also known as Xianzi, in her sexual assault case against popular CCTV host Zhu Jun. Similar to Liu Jingyao, Xianzi was a 21-year-old intern at the time, while Zhu was 50 years old, and she has faced an onslaught of censorship and nationalist attacks online. Peng Shuai, the tennis star who accused former CCP Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in November 2021, had her WeChat post censored and remains in a state of forced disappearance and reappearance. #MeToo activist Huang Xueqin also remains in detention (along with labor activist Wang Jianbing) after her forced disappearance over one year ago. 

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