Supporters of a University of Minnesota student who is suing a Chinese billionaire for allegedly raping her in Minneapolis in 2018 say their social media postings about the case are being blocked in China.
Xiaowen Liang, a leading Chinese feminist activist in the United States, wrote an article about the young woman for WeChat, an instant-messaging site in China with a billion subscribers, in which she provided details from a June hearing in Hennepin County District Court. She said that after the article had racked up about 100,000 views, it was blocked along with her own account. "I lost over 2,000 contacts," she said.
A Chinese student at the U who said he copied Liang's report and sent it out on WeChat also had it blocked, and said his account was shut down for two weeks. He asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation.
"In the past few years, the Chinese government has been cracking down on the MeToo activists in China and Chinese feminists," Liang said in an interview. "More and more women are paying attention to the movement and are very vocal on Chinese media. On the other hand, the censorship against young women activists is getting more and more serious."
The blocked account explains that it "is being complained about by users and ... violated cyber security law of the People's Republic of China."
Jingyao Liu, now 25, alleges she was raped by Richard Liu (no relation) in 2018 while she was a student at the U and the defendant was taking classes at the U's Carlson School of Management. Richard Liu, now 49, who was arrested but never criminally charged, claims the sex was consensual. She denies that, and is suing both him and his company, JD.com, a Chinese internet retail site similar to Amazon.
Much of what's being reported in China about the case is said to be sympathetic to Richard Liu and paints a harsh portrait of Jingyao Liu as an unscrupulous woman who made false accusations in order to extract money from him.
According to court papers, her attorneys say a tape of a phone call shortly after the alleged assault was circulated through Chinese social media, in which she asked Liu's attorney for an unspecified payout. Her attorneys say that Richard Liu's attorney coaxed her into asking for money.
JD.com's largest investor at one time was Tencent, a Chinese multinational corporation that runs WeChat. Asked in a May deposition if Tencent's owner, Pony Ma, was a good friend of his, Richard Liu responded, "Yes, I think so."
According to news reports, Tencent cut its investment in JD.com in December 2021 from 17 to 2.3%. In an email to the Star Tribune, a JD.com spokesman said Thursday that Tencent is no longer an investor in JD.com.
"Any implication that Mr. Liu or the company have insight, knowledge or control over what content is allowed to be shared on WeChat is patently false and defamatory," the JD.com spokesman said. "This conspiracy theory is the latest desperate attempt to distract from the facts and evidence of the case — which will prove that the allegations are false."
According to the Daily Mail, a newspaper published in London, other WeChat sites in China that support Jingyao Liu were shut down this month. A petition circulated by another activist was permanently blocked last week because, the organizer was told, it "violated laws and regulations."
The Mail also reported that five other WeChat public channels, most of them run by students, were shut down after they shared a Google Form petition with the hashtag #HereForJingyao.
Wil Florin, Jingyao Liu's Florida-based attorney, told the Star Tribune on Monday: "No one should be surprised why women are often afraid to come forward."
Western academics who study China say that government and social media officials are concerned that more young Chinese feminists are speaking out against sexual harassment and assault. It's seen as a threat to the Chinese Communist establishment, which fears an independent social movement might spawn an uprising that could upend the power structure.
Jingyao Liu's case "is one of the most influential cases of MeToo in China because of Richard Liu," said Lu Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist who attends Rutgers University in New Jersey. "His company is China's Amazon."
Lu Pin said she was banned from Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, "because I am a feminist." She said she isn't currently using any Chinese social media platforms "because of censorship. It is not safe for me and people who talk to me."
The suppression of feminism in China highlights the contradiction of a regime that preaches female equality but has tried to downplay reports of women who say they have been harassed or sexually assaulted, sometimes by prominent members of the Chinese establishment.
"I believe that China's all-male rulers have decided that the systematic subjugation of women is essential to maintaining Communist Party survival," wrote Leta Hong Fincher, an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University, in her 2018 book "Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China." The passage is cited in a court filing by Jingyao Liu's attorneys.
''The Chinese government wants women to be reproductive tools of the state, obedient wives and mothers in the home, to help maintain political stability, have babies and rear the workforce of the future," Fincher wrote.
Richard Liu was arrested in 2018 near the end of a one-week program for Chinese billionaires, each of whom paid $76,000 to attend business courses at the U and a university in China.
Liu held a private dinner at Origami, an Uptown Minneapolis restaurant, where Jingyao Liu alleged he got her drunk before taking her back to her apartment and raping her. She was 21 at the time.
The news about Richard Liu, said to be one of China's richest men with a net worth of $10 billion, according to Forbes Magazine, spread quickly around the world, including China. But much of the news turned hostile to Jingyao Liu.
"I think many women want to know about this case," Liang said. "Many people are paying attention to this case, but they can only get information from Richard Liu's perspective. Jingyao's story is censored or blocked."
"The notion that a young woman can use the legal system and the media to advocate for rights and bring down an extremely powerful man is disquieting for men in power in China," said Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center, who researches issues of gender equality and LGBTQ rights in China.
Karman Lucero, a fellow at the Tsai Center who is an expert in China's regulation of emerging technologies, said the Chinese government requires social media companies to promote positive positions. "It puts the onus on the companies to develop what's allowed and what's not," he said. "The companies and the government are integrated in this process."
The U Chinese student who was blocked on WeChat said he was sad that his account was blocked but happy that what he said had worried Chinese authorities.
"If the Chinese government shuts you down or Chinese social media shuts you down, you're moving in the right direction," the student said.