A Chinese court rejected an appeal in a landmark sexual harassment case on Wednesday, dealing a blow to the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement.
Zhou Xiaoxuan stepped forward in 2018 to accuse popular state TV host Zhu Jun of forcibly kissing and groping her during her 2014 internship at the broadcaster.
Her case inspired many others to share their experiences of sexual assault publicly and sparked a social media storm.
But a court ruled last year that there was not enough evidence to prove Zhou was sexually harassed by Zhu, and her appeal was rejected Wednesday on similar grounds.
In a statement, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court said it “will uphold the previous judgment”.
Police cordoned off long stretches of pavement outside the court ahead of Zhou arrival in the afternoon, with officers logging the details of passers-by.
“The process of the first trial was a deep secondary injury,” she told AFP ahead of her hearing.
Zhou, 29, told AFP 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.
Zhu was absent from earlier proceedings, she added, and 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 luck on Wednesday, holding up signs that said “#MeToo” and balloons spelling out “All the best” in Chinese.
“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.
Speaking after the hearing, she said “victory is not that important to me… I accept this outcome.”
She added that it was meaningful that she could give her statement before the court, thanking supporters.
– ‘Too difficult’ –
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 told AFP.
“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”.
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.