Just after midday on December 2nd, dozens of younger girls gathered on Danling Street, in central Beijing, exterior the Haidian District Court, the place a high-profile sexual-harassment trial was set to start. Wrapped in puffy jackets in the freezing chilly, some of them held selfmade indicators: “The history and the people are on your side”; “We are not walking genitalia.” By 1 p.m., a number of police automobiles had blocked the slender, tree-lined avenue on each ends, however the cluster saved rising, now strengthened by workplace employees on their lunch breaks. Near the courtroom’s entrance, a crowd of individuals stood about 200 ft deep. When the plaintiff, a twenty-seven-year-old screenwriter named Zhou Xiaoxuan, arrived with an entourage of a dozen buddies, the crowd swept gently round her. Some supporters started crying.

More than two years in the past, underneath the nickname Xianzi, Zhou posted an essay accusing Zhu Jun, a talk-show host for the nationwide broadcaster C.C.T.V., of making undesirable sexual advances towards her when she was an intern at the community, in 2014. (Zhu has denied the allegations. His lawyer didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark.) Since then, she has turn into one of China’s most seen #MeToo advocates. Although each Zhou and Zhu requested a public trial, the courtroom proceedings occurred behind closed doorways; on the social-media platforms WeChat and Weibo, tens of 1000’s of individuals mentioned the case, as censors swiftly deleted the hottest posts. Traditional newsrooms didn’t cowl the trial. Into the night, confused supply individuals carrying meals, bubble tea, and heating pads for demonstrators started to reach at the courthouse, asking, “Who are ‘Xianzi’s friends’?” “We all are,” voices from the crowd answered.

The listening to lasted greater than ten hours, and left Zhou exhausted. “It was painful,” she informed me. Her legal professional’s requests to current police proof to the courtroom—together with surveillance footage from the hallway exterior the dressing room the place she was allegedly harassed, and notes from a police interview with Zhu in 2014—had been repeatedly denied. Zhou was additionally subjected to questions on her “sexual morals.” “It brought me back to 2014, like déjà vu,” she stated. “They were just trying to stop me from talking about what happened.”

Her attorneys requested the presence of “people’s assessors,” who’re residents chosen to determine a case alongside judges; this provision is predicated on a statute that allows such requests for instances which might be more likely to have giant social affect. (The request was later denied.) The judges then adjourned the trial. “We will continue to ask for an open-door trial, for obtaining evidence, for jurors and for the defendant to be present,” Zhou later informed her followers in a assertion. When she lastly emerged from the courthouse, the hundred or so supporters who remained exterior erupted into cheers. “Thank you for paving the road for the future,” a man shouted.

Zhou wrote about her expertise at C.C.T.V. in the summer time of 2018; a pal shared her essay on Weibo, and her allegations gained nationwide consideration. Soon Zhu sued her for defamation. In response, she filed a swimsuit alleging violation of “personality rights,” together with injury to private dignity. These occasions have made her a pioneer of #MeToo in China, with the motion she represents largely taking part in out on-line—public rallies are basically outlawed in the nation.

Zhou, a native of Wuhan who lives in Beijing and writes scripts for Web collection about campus romance, had little earlier expertise of coping with journalists or attorneys. She initially appeared in pictures along with her again turned to the digital camera, however, as the case grew to become extra broadly recognized, she started to point out her face publicly. At first, she spoke to reporters utilizing the pseudonym Xianzi; she later used her actual identify in English-language publications. “I wanted the public to know that they were not consuming some gossip or abstract social issue,” she informed me. “I am a real person.” Pursuing the authorized case publicly has come at a value. Her dad and mom and boyfriend have been doxxed and attacked on-line, and through pretrial proceedings for her lawsuit, Zhu’s lawyer advised that she suffered from a “delusional disorder.”

In January, 2018, a few months after the wave of allegations against Harvey Weinstein started in the U.S., a Chinese lady working in Silicon Valley posted an essay about her personal previous expertise of being sexually harassed by her Ph.D. advisor at a college in Beijing. This accusation launched #MeToo in China. Over the subsequent two years, scores of girls—largely college students, interns, volunteers, and entry-level staff—got here ahead with their very own experiences of harassment, implicating distinguished professors and actors. At universities, such revelations typically led to investigations and disciplinary actions in opposition to the accused, however, in basic, few instances resulted in authorized challenges. Accusers largely posted their accounts on social media, resembling WeChat, Weibo, and the Quora-like platform Zhihu, as a result of the press is tightly managed by the authorities, which views public complaints as a supply of social instability.

As in the U.S., China’s #MeToo motion gained traction notably amongst younger, educated, middle-class girls like Zhou. “#MeToo has created a community for women’s rights in China, and the community is growing in size and conviction,” Lu Pin, who has advocated for ladies’s rights in China for many years, stated. “It got people asking: What kind of life should women live? Should they marry? Should they have children? Should they obey their parents?”

The neighborhood constructed by #MeToo grew to become a foundation for dialogue of previously taboo points, starting from home violence and postpartum despair to menstrual merchandise. In popular culture, themes of gender inequality started all of a sudden rising in songs and standup comedy. “When I chatted with people, I realized that many of them only started to pay attention to women’s rights since #MeToo—they were unaware of feminism as a concept before 2018,” a Beijing-based feminist blogger who was exterior the courthouse on the day of Zhou’s trial stated. She requested to stay nameless, for worry of retaliation in opposition to her advocacy (girls’s-rights activists in China are harassed not solely by the authorities but additionally by on-line trolls, and have little recourse for such abuse).

Lu Pin, like many different specialists, isn’t optimistic about what is going to come out of Zhou’s case. “I don’t have much confidence in the rule of law in China,” she informed me. “It is very difficult for the #MeToo movement to find a way forward in the legal system.” But a feminist activist often called Xiao Meili identified why some organizers could have cause for hope. “The case received national attention,” she stated. “She reported it to the police at the time and has lots of evidence.”

Since 2018, solely a handful of felony and civil instances alleging sexual harassment have been filed and reported in the press in China. A number of plaintiffs have received nominal reduction, resembling a formal apology. It was solely in 2020 that the Chinese legislature clearly outlined sexual harassment in its first civil code; in earlier instances, together with in Zhou’s swimsuit, alleged victims needed to sue as an alternative for “injury of personality rights,” a imprecise class overlaying people’ rights to well being and dignity. Last yr, Zhou requested to switch her swimsuit to a sexual-harassment case; the courtroom denied her request.

In follow, the system stays skeptical of instances resembling Zhou’s. In a case determined in January, 2021, in which an influential journalist and philanthropist sued his accuser for defamation, the courtroom dominated that the accuser needed to show that the harassment occurred “without any doubt”—an unusually excessive normal for a civil lawsuit. (In China, the normal civil normal is to ascertain that the allegation is “highly probable.”) “The standard of evidence failed to consider the uniqueness of individual sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence cases,” Li Ying, a lawyer who specializes in household regulation and home violence litigation, wrote on Weibo. “In the dominant conventional view, the society continues to be prejudiced against these kinds of cases and stigmatize their victims.”

In February, when a former journalist wrote about her expertise with home violence, it shortly gained nationwide consideration. The native authorities rushed to publish investigation outcomes diminishing her complaints, claiming that she by no means reported abuse to native police and casting suspicion on the undeniable fact that she has not but divorced her husband. “ ‘Believing in the law’ has become a shorthand slogan for this narrative,” Zhou stated. “The sexual harassment only happened if the court says it did, and otherwise you are lying.” She continued, “According to the law, only a few sexual-harassment incidents have ever happened in China. Do you believe that?”

Zhou sees her case as one thing of an experiment. “Is justice a possibility for someone who was sexually harassed in a closed space?” she requested. “Even if the answer is no, I’d like the court to tell me formally.” A tentative date for a second listening to, which can once more be closed to the public, has been scheduled for later this month. Zhou fears that, if she loses, it might discourage different girls. She chooses, nonetheless, to see which means in even the worst outcomes. “I’d like to question this reality,” she stated, “even if just to leave a historic record of our time.”

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