Sitting inside a Beijing courthouse late at night last month, Zhou Xiaoxuan and her lawyers came to a quick decision. Their years-long effort to seek justice for her alleged sexual harassment by one of the country’s most popular celebrities was clearly not going to go their way. In a short statement the court ruled she had tendered insufficient evidence.
On Weibo she wrote to her supporters with a list of criticisms of the judgment and process. “Failure is not shameful, and I am honoured to have stood with you together in the past three years … Thank you very much, everyone, I will definitely appeal.”
The next day her social media accounts were shut down.
“It’s like the only ones who can speak are the other side,” she tells the Guardian, through a translator. “It’s the same feeling from 2014 [the year of the alleged assault]: people telling you that you are not important and you should shut up. Like I’m not someone who lost their case in the sexual harassment case, but instead I am the criminal.”
It’s a few weeks after that long day in court, and the furore around this young woman who never planned to be famous is starting to ebb. Cut off from communication with her supporters and planning her next move, Zhou – widely known by her nickname Xianzi – speaks with determination.
In the seven years since the alleged incident and three since she went public with her claims, Xianzi, adesso 28, pushes back on the descriptor she’s been given – the face of China’s #MeToo movement. But years later she does feel a “responsibility” now, to continue. “I cannot even imagine how we were all insistent for so long," lei dice.
“For others the fact that we lost the case is very frustrating, but for me, this is the result of every single person doing all they can do and making all the effort. This is a miracle.”
“Back then, we still had those strong feelings of shame," lei dice. “I told her that I thought she was very brave and I hoped to write an article too, to stay with her and support her and share the shame. Just to let her know that what she wrote was not in vain.”
But Xianzi’s 3,000 character long essay about Zhu Jun, a famous state broadcasting host and member of China’s political advisory body, was never going to go unnoticed, even as censors went to work on the flood of stories online. Her post, and a subsequent one, spread like wildfire across China’s social media.
Dentro, she alleged that in 2014 Zhu Jun sexually harassed her, forcibly groping and kissing her for almost an hour when she went to his dressing room to try to interview him. She was a 21-year-old intern on his show, and she says she was terrified and unable to respond.
The following day she went to the police to report it but, lei dice, they told her he was a famous person of good reputation and “positive energy" for the country, so she should leave it alone. They also contacted her parents – party members with government jobs – and warned them that she shouldn’t speak out.
“What they did was deny my existence," lei dice.
“It was like telling me: what you’re feeling and what hurt you are less important than the other person. That your social impact is less important than the other person. Nel 2014, I was a college student, I didn’t know anything and gave up easily.”
After Xianzi’s essay came out, Zhu – who strenuously denies the allegations – sued her for defamation and damages of 650,000 RMB ($100,000). She countersued for “violation of personality rights”, using the only available law at the time, as China was yet to introduce legislation on sexual harassment. The Guardian’s attempts to contact Zhu, who has not spoken publicly about the case since 2018, were unsuccessful. The defamation case is still active.
The civil case went through two delayed and ultimately unsuccessful trials. The court experience was frustrating for Xianzi, and she claims she was denied sufficient chances to speak, and supporting evidence was rejected. Observers and press were barred, and Zhu’s presence was not mandated. The court also denied her application to alter her case to use the since-enacted law against sexual harassment.
In the drawn-out process, Xianzi’s case became one of the most watched in China, despite the closed-door hearings and online censorship, drawing international attention and lighting up China’s online feminist movement. Supporters braved the heavy police presence outside court to show up with placards of support.
Outside an earlier hearing, Yang Ruiqi, a third-year university student, told the Guardian the #MeToo movement had been an inspiration. It had made her “realise that things which made me feel uncomfortable before were wrong, it wasn’t because I was being too sensitive.”
But Xianzi also drew anger. She was abused and trolled online, harassed, called a liar and slut-shamed, even accused of working for a foreign power. As she arrived for her final day in court, she was shoved by antagonistic bystanders who tried to prevent her speaking, while a man questioned whether it was appropriate for her to speak alone.
“The public opinion, the attacks indeed bothered me," lei dice. "[Ma] it is not a threat, those people who attack me online probably would not dare to hurt me offline.
“They attacked me personally, but for me, the more hurt I am, the more I want to insist on things … It is more meaningful to work hard in this bad situation.”
One day after Xianzi’s case was dismissed, the Weibo account with which she had amassed a following and communicated with supporters and victims, was suspended.
“When you speak about feminism on the internet, it is very easy to be banned and it has always been like this, they don’t even need a reason to ban you," lei dice.
Amid an ongoing purge of online subculture groups and expression, the years-long targeting and censorship of feminists and feminist organisations has continued, with cyber-attacks and pile-ons linked to increasing nationalism on Chinese social media. In April, in response to waves of online attacks on women, social media platforms shut down the accounts of victims and their supporters.
With high rates of violence against women and gender discrimination, sexual harassment in the workplace, and general complaints of a lack of enforcement or accountability, Xianzi’s case was being watched closely by women across the country who felt the system did not support them. There had been some wins during the height of the #MeToo discourse, but there was still a long way to go.
In reality, very few cases make it to court. Legal analysts have pointed to a high burden of proof and general requirements for physical evidence. A week before the court threw out Xianzi’s case, prosecutors dropped a case against an Alibaba manager accused of sexually assaulting an employee, detto he committed “forcible indecency” but that it did not constitute a crime.
Xianzi says she doesn’t regret coming forward with her allegations or pursuing legal action.
She says work on the appeal regarding her sexual harassment case is consuming her days, but that the conversation the movement – and her case – has started has been worthwhile, even if she does not succeed.
“People are willing to speak publicly about what happened to them and share their experiences," lei dice. “The fact that we can discuss publicly, is already very valuable. It not only can comfort other women but also make the general public understand more about sexual harassment and sexual assault. This is the most important thing – young girls no longer feel guilty and ashamed.”
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin