September 27, 2018 / 2:04 AM / in 2 months

From chatroom to courtroom: China's #MeToo movement takes legal turn

BEIJING (Reuters) - When a former intern at China’s state broadcaster wrote in July about being groped and forcibly kissed by one of the country’s most recognizable television stars, her story ignited a social media firestorm in a country where a backlash against sexual harassment was growing.

Television host Zhu Jun hosts a musical performance in Xian, Shaanxi province, China November 15, 2014. Picture taken November 15, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

Now her case is set to go before the Chinese legal system.

The 25-year-old former intern told Reuters she had been informed Tuesday by a court in Beijing’s Haidian district that she was being sued in a civil case for damaging Zhu Jun’s reputation and mental wellbeing.

Also named in the suit was Xu Chao, a friend who had been championing the case online. At her request, Reuters is withholding the name of the accuser and identifying her by her online name, Xianzi.

Zhu is demanding that the two women apologize online and in a national newspaper, pay compensation of 655,000 yuan ($95,254.72) and cover the costs of legal fees for the case, according to a copy of the filing seen by Reuters.

Descriptions of Zhu forcibly kissing and groping Xianzi were “pure fiction” and had caused “grave damage” to Zhu’s public image and his mental health, according to the filing, which was dated Sept. 18 and is not available to the public.

In response, Xianzi applied to file her own civil suit against Zhu on Tuesday for “infringement of personality rights”, she told Reuters. Personality rights is a broad term used within Chinese law to refer to personal dignity rights, but does not specifically mention sexual harassment.

“I decided that you have to use the law to prove what you said happened,” Xianzi said on Wednesday.

Zhu, 54, whose lawyers have publicly denied the allegations, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Zhu’s lawyer issued a statement earlier this month saying he had sued the two women. Reached by telephone, Xu confirmed the filing of the lawsuit.

China’s justice and public security ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

China does not have a law that specifically prohibits sexual harassment. However, on Aug. 27 China’s parliament announced that it was considering adding provisions to a civil code, expected to be passed in 2020, that would allow a victim to file a civil suit against someone who uses words, actions or exploits a subordinate relationship to sexually harass them.

The changes would also require employers to take measures to prevent, stop and handle complaints about sexual harassment.

VAGUE LAWS, CULTURE OF SILENCE

In recent months, women have made several allegations of sexual abuse against powerful men, including prominent university professors, the head of China’s Buddhist association, and leading figures in the media and at non-governmental organizations, which have reverberated across social media in China.

That intensified with the arrest and release by U.S. police last month of Richard Liu, chief executive of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, on a rape allegation. Liu has not been charged and through a lawyer has denied any wrongdoing.

Up to now, vague laws, patchy implementation and a lack of understanding among lawyers, judges, police and the public have hampered attempts to handle cases through the courts, and deterred many victims from filing suits, according to activist groups.

The lack of a clear definition of sexual harassment, or an agreed upon standard for addressing complaints, entrenches a “culture of silence”, according to the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, a non-profit.

The group said that while workplace sexual harassment is widespread in China, only 34 specific cases have been logged in the official court case database since 2010.

HOUSEHOLD NAME

Xianzi was a 21-year-old intern at the state broadcaster CCTV when she said she met Zhu, who is famous across China for hosting an annual spring festival extravaganza, one of China’s top-rated programs.

In an interview with Reuters, Xianzi said that she had been alone in a dressing room with Zhu when he asked her if she wanted to work for the channel after her internship, before trying to take her hand on the pretext of reading her fortune.

Despite her protests, Xianzi said, Zhu groped her under her skirt before pulling her head and forcibly kissing her, only stopping when interrupted by knocking on the door.

CCTV did not respond to requests for comment.

Xianzi said she was moved to act after reading accounts of sexual assault and harassment posted on Chinese social media by women emboldened by the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement.

In July, Xianzi, now a screenwriter, wrote about her own experience on WeChat, sharing it with a small circle of friends. When Xu, her friend, shared the post on the Weibo platform, it went viral.

On Tuesday, Xianzi returned to social media.

“Still a bit angry, this is Xianzi, hello everyone, I’m getting ready for a fight,” she wrote on Weibo.

($1 = 6.8763 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Reporting by Joyce Zhou,Philip Wen, Christian Shepherd and Pei Li; Additional reporting by Liangping Gao and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Tony Munroe and Philip McClellan

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