MINNEAPOLIS — When Liu Jingyao introduced herself, in the lobby of her apartment building, I didn’t recognize her. It was a puzzling feeling. For an entire year, photos of her had blanketed the Chinese internet. Like tens of millions of other Chinese, I had watched and rewatched surveillance video of her in this very building. She was one of the most talked about and mysterious women in China, and I thought I knew what she looked like.
In the video, she wanders the halls of a mazelike building, with a man trailing along. They get in and out of several elevators. She seems unsure about how to get to her apartment. She wears striking waist-length hair and a long, dark knit dress. She doesn’t look glamorous, exactly, but for a 21-year-old college junior, she is dressed smartly.
But on a morning in early August, she greeted me in a loosefitting checkered dress. Now 22, she looked pale and nervous. Her lips were chapped. She invited me upstairs, and began an intense conversation that continued for 18 straight hours.
In the summer of 2018, Ms. Liu, a student at the University of Minnesota, alleged that the billionaire founder of one of China’s largest companies, JD.com, followed her back to her apartment and raped her. The executive, known as Liu Qiangdong in China and Richard Liu in the English-speaking world, was arrested by Minneapolis police and released within 24 hours. (He and Ms. Liu are not related.) He insisted that the sex was consensual, and prosecutors declined to charge him. In April, Ms. Liu accused Mr. Liu of rape in a Minnesota civil court, seeking more than $50,000 in damages.
But hers is not a typical #MeToo story. After her name became common knowledge on the Chinese internet, Ms. Liu was widely called a slut, a whore, a liar, a gold digger and many other things. It may be difficult for Westerners to grasp the scale and intensity of her online shaming. But the Monica Lewinsky frenzy is a good comparison, had it taken place in the era of Twitter and YouTube in a country with 800 million internet users and no independent news media. When Ms. Liu and I met, it was the first time she had ever spoken to an English-language publication about what she has endured.
‘A feeling that someone is watching me’
In her apartment, a 500-square-foot studio, Ms. Liu showed me photos of trips she had taken to Morocco, Greece and Spain, before all that had happened. She looked different then. Her eyes were brighter, and her smile looked unreserved.
She said she had thrown away half of her cosmetics and no longer wore makeup. Like many young Chinese, she used to like designer clothes and handbags; now she mostly wears Muji, the inexpensive Japanese brand whose style reputation in China might be described as dowdy and demure.
When Ms. Liu transferred to the university a year ago, she chose the high-floor apartment for its view of a nearby park and a water tower known to locals as the Witch’s Hat. Now, she said, she keeps the blinds down day and night. “I always have a feeling that someone is watching me from outside,” she said. “I want to be as inconspicuous as possible.”
It’s an understandable concern, given the social-media attention directed at Ms. Liu, which has been vast and often vicious. On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, her case has been one of the most popular topics of the last two years.
“The woman is a slut,” one commenter said. “The woman looks disgusting,” commented another. “It was obvious that they disagreed on the price,” added a third. “Looks like the woman set up the whole thing.” And one suggested that Mr. Liu was the actual victim, writing, “Look at the woman’s build, I absolutely believe that Liu Qiangdong was raped.”
These are just a few of the 8,500 comments on a single Weibo post, which was retweeted 14,000 times and liked by 95,000 users. Now imagine this, and worse, at scale, for months and months.
Many of the most active hashtags related to the case, including #RichardLiulawsuit and #RichardLiusexualassault, have been disabled on Weibo. But even less popular hashtags regarding the case get an astonishing amount of attention. One, which has to do with a denial that Mr. Liu was getting divorced, has 170 million views. Another, which concerns a defamation lawsuit Mr. Liu filed against a Chinese blogger, has 130 million views. A hashtag about a pretrial hearing in September has logged 110 million views.
Followers of the case quickly translate legal documents into Chinese and add subtitles to police audio and video. In some ways, Ms. Liu has become a figure as polarizing as President Trump. In July, the morning after the Minneapolis police released a report on the case, I got into a debate with a friend, and I suggested that she might want to read the document first before jumping to conclusions. My friend, an accomplished career woman and busy mother, replied that she had indeed read it — all 149 pages, in English, overnight, purely out of curiosity.
Ms. Liu’s case is attracting so much attention because she is accusing one of the country’s most powerful men of behavior that has long been ignored. Sexual harassment and assault are widespread in China, and elites face little scrutiny. The workings of government and the private lives of national leaders are off-limits to the news media. Self-made tech tycoons are widely admired celebrities.
Among this class of billionaires, Mr. Liu is one of the most high-profile. Born in a village in the eastern province of Jiangsu, he likes to recount how his family was able to afford meat only once or twice a year, and how he went to college with $70 raised by his fellow villagers. He founded JD.com in the early days of Chinese e-commerce, and turned the company into a logistics colossus. Mr. Liu became an entrepreneurial icon, known for putting on a helmet and JD.com’s red uniform to personally make deliveries on a three-wheeled electric bike one day a year.
Mr. Liu only got more famous in 2015, when he married a 21-year-old student and internet celebrity named Zhang Zetian. By the summer of 2018, when he traveled to Minnesota, he was worth an estimated $7.5 billion.
27 toasts of wine
Ms. Liu grew up in Beijing, introverted and intense, the only child of an affluent family. Her father was a businessman, and her mother, Ms. Liu said, was strict and quick to scold or punish her physically. She only allowed Ms. Liu to wear her hair short. Today, Ms. Liu’s waist-length cut is an act of rebellion.
In 2016, she went to a liberal arts college in Minnesota to study literature, while also practicing piano two and half hours a day. She dreamed of becoming a diplomat or a professor of linguistics, but she was also interested in business. She transferred to the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in August 2018, where a professor recruited her to volunteer with a program for visiting international executives. One of them was Mr. Liu.
Every morning, Ms. Liu got up early and took the executive visitors jogging. On the fifth day, she was invited to a group dinner at a Japanese restaurant. When Ms. Liu arrived, she found that she was the only volunteer — and the only woman — at a table of about a dozen middle-aged Chinese men. Surveillance video shows that one of the men directed her to sit next to Mr. Liu, the most accomplished and wealthiest member of the group. At Chinese business dinners, it is common for pretty young women to be placed next to powerful men to laugh at their lewd jokes.
In the next two hours, according to the police, members of the party raised their glasses of red wine in at least 27 toasts. Ms. Liu drank 19 times. The man sitting across from her passed out on the table and had to be carried away.
After dinner, Ms. Liu left in a limousine with Mr. Liu and two of his female assistants. They drove to a house rented by one of the executives, but Ms. Liu didn’t want to go in. The chauffeur, whose name is redacted in police reports, later told officers that he saw Ms. Liu and Mr. Liu talking in front of his car. “Then he grabbed her arm, kind of overpower her and bring her to my car in the back,” the chauffeur said, according to a transcript. “I look in my mirror and this guy was all over this girl.” Then, he said, one of Mr. Liu’s assistants pushed the mirror up to obscure the chauffeur’s view. The chauffeur told the police that he didn’t hear anyone saying “stop” or “no," or cry for help.
Mr. Liu went with Ms. Liu to her apartment. A few hours later, a friend of hers reported to the police that Ms. Liu had told him, via a messaging app, that she had been raped.
A spokesman for Mr. Liu denied that account, saying, “The evidence released by the Minneapolis Police Department, including the written police report and surveillance video, does not support the accusations that have been made.”
When I met with Ms. Liu, she said that she seldom left her apartment anymore and that she spends most of her time cooking, drawing, playing piano, watching Japanese soap operas and struggling with whether to check Chinese social-media platforms. Each night, she double-checked her door lock before going to bed. On her nightstand were a canister of pepper spray and a stun gun that she purchased after that evening.
Ms. Liu said she had a recurring nightmare: a man forcing her down and sitting on top of her. Her psychiatrist told her that it was a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said that during nights of insomnia, she would replay in her head how she should have handled the situation differently. She would try not to be intimidated by how powerful Mr. Liu was. She would definitely drink less. She would definitely not tell the police, when they arrived, “Yes, I was raped, but not that kind of rape.” Or wait two days before telling her parents that she was the woman in the biggest news of the week in China. Or wait five days before getting a lawyer. Or use the word “money” when telling Mr. Liu’s lawyer what she wanted, in addition to an apology, when the English word she meant to use was the more neutral “compensation.”
“I was such a fool,” she said. “I was such a coward. I messed it up.”
One woman versus the Chinese internet
In 2018, encouraged by the #MeToo movement elsewhere in the world, more than 50 Chinese women came forward with their stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted. The men accused included professors, journalists and NGO organizers. Some lost their jobs or resigned.
But the fledgling movement started to lose its momentum just around the time of Ms. Liu’s allegation. Men who had been publicly accused were starting to sue their accusers for defamation. #MeToo victims faced criticism from even the most liberal-minded corners in China. Most important of all, the Chinese government — distrustful of independent social movements — clamped down on public discussion of gender issues.
Online allegations of sexual misconduct were one of the most heavily censored topics on WeChat, China’s biggest social-media platform, in 2018, according to WeChatscope, a research project at the University of Hong Kong. The hashtags #MeToo and #Woyeshi — a Mandarin translation — were banned. Some of the WeChat accounts that voiced support for Ms. Liu were deleted. WeChat is owned by Tencent, which is also the biggest shareholder of JD.com.
Ms. Liu’s experiences illustrate how Chinese society treats women who dare to speak up about sexual assault. Victims need to be seen as perfect to win any sympathy from the public, or they’ll be subject to immense slut-shaming. Younger women who sleep with older and powerful men, willingly or unwillingly, face even more public distain.
In December 2018, Minneapolis prosecutors decided not to charge Mr. Liu with sexual assault because they did not find enough evidence to pursue a case against him. They made the announcement without meeting with Ms. Liu. She said that when she heard the news, she felt “as if the sky had fallen.” But what came next on the Chinese internet was much worse.
One major Chinese news site posted an article headlined, “Richard Liu’s Attorney: Everything Happened in the Room was Voluntary. Woman Repeatedly Asked for Money.” The story featured a lengthy statement from one of Mr. Liu’s lawyers, but nothing from Ms. Liu’s side. It got 14,000 comments. A well-respected former writer for the Southern Weekly, the country’s most liberal-leaning newspaper, shared the article on Weibo with the comment, “Richard Liu isn’t guilty legally though he is morally. The woman is a cheap slut. She’s inviting humiliation.”
A few days after Ms. Liu filed her lawsuit, in April 2019, a heavily edited video surfaced on the Chinese internet. It was titled “Proof of a Gold Digger Trap?” and was cut to give the impression that Ms. Liu had invited Mr. Liu to her apartment for sex. It was posted to Weibo by an account that had never posted anything before. One of Mr. Liu’s Chinese lawyers wrote online that the video was “authentic,” and it was viewed more than 54 million times. Numerous Chinese websites published articles saying Ms. Liu had escorted Mr. Liu into her room.
Separately, one of China’s most influential newspapers published an edited audio clip, in which Ms. Liu can be heard asking Mr. Liu’s lawyer for an apology and money. News of the recording was reposted widely. Taken together, the video and audio clip seemed to turn the whole of the Chinese internet against Ms. Liu.
In Minneapolis, I asked her to estimate what proportion of news consumers in China believed her. Initially, she said 30 percent. Thinking about it longer, Ms. Liu said that there were probably just three types of people in her corner: women who have been sexually assaulted, feminists and people who know her. “Definitely not 30 percent,” she said, a little defeated. “Ten percent at best.”
Then Ms. Liu grew agitated. “I didn’t want to report to the police in the first place because I knew this would happen,” she said. “People would look at me and say, ‘There are too many holes in her story. She said she was drunk, but the way she walked in the video didn’t show it at all.’ But I didn’t say that I was so dead drunk that I couldn’t move.”
She kept talking. “They said that I was pretending when I couldn’t find my apartment in the building. But if I were a real gold digger, why would I take a man running around in the building for 15 minutes to find my door? They questioned why I would take a man home in the middle of the night. But it was my home, and he was Richard Liu! Who would have thought he would do that?”
‘The Price of Shame’
Ms. Liu said she felt powerless — that she couldn’t make the public see how scary it was for a 21-year-old to sit among a group of powerful middle-aged men, and how she couldn’t make the most powerful among them leave her alone. Ms. Liu couldn’t make them see how creepy it was that a 45-year-old billionaire, who mingled with the Davos elite, followed a young woman around an apartment building that mostly housed students. She was angry at Mr. Liu’s two assistants and the other executives at the dinner: She saw them as complicit, but barely any public outrage had been directed at them.
She continues to hide in her apartment with her two Yorkshire terriers, waiting for developments in her lawsuit against Mr. Liu. Her parents are working in China. Her boyfriend has had visa trouble and can’t visit. Ms. Liu uses a pseudonym when ordering takeout food and Ubers, for fear that she’ll encounter a Chinese person who recognizes her name.
During our long conversation, I asked Ms. Liu whether she thought her experience was similar to that of Monica Lewinsky. “Of course not,” she said quickly. “I would never sleep with a married man voluntarily.” A week later, I sent her a link to Ms. Lewinsky’s TED Talk, titled “The Price of Shame,” in which she argues for a more compassionate social-media environment. “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop,” Ms. Lewinsky says.
“We’re so similar!” Ms. Liu told me a day later. “I truly admire her that after all that, she can still live a positive life. Extraordinary!” Then she added, “I’m such a loser that I don’t even dare to read the police report.”
But Ms. Liu has, she said, turned out to be more resilient than she at first expected. True, she said, she suffers from PTSD and is sometimes suicidal. But she’s determined to pursue the case. She said she would not settle, because she would never agree to signing a nondisclosure agreement. If she won, she said, she would donate all the money to Chinese feminists who have been supportive of her — except for $1,000, which she would keep for herself.
She spent money on a flight to New York to find a lawyer. And she wants compensation, she said, for the clothes and bedsheets that were destroyed.
“If I had known I could endure so much,” she said. “I would not have hesitated about reporting to the police.”