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A Chinese billionaire and a former University of Minnesota student who accused him of rape have reached an undisclosed agreement in the US, bringing an abrupt end to a case closely watched – and now hailed as a minor victory – by women on the other side of the world.
JD.com’s founder and former CEO Richard Liu reached a settlement with former student Liu Jingyao, who accused him of raping her in her Minneapolis apartment after a group dinner in 2018, ending the high-profile case less than two days before a planned civil trial in Minnesota.
Lawyers of the two parties – who are not related, with Liu being a common surname in China – said they had agreed to “set aside their differences” in order to “avoid further pain and suffering.”
“The incident between Ms. Jingyao Liu and Mr. Richard Liu in Minnesota in 2018 resulted in a misunderstanding that has consumed substantial public attention and brought profound suffering to the parties and their families,” the parties said in a joint statement.
Liu is among a handful of well-known Chinese men accused of sexual assault in recent years, and he’s the first to have faced the prospect of a public lawsuit in the US – outside of China’s opaque legal system.
The decision to settle the case out of court has been embraced by some feminists in China as a small victory for the country’s beleaguered #MeToo movement.
On Weibo, China’s highly restricted Twitter-like platform, a hashtag related to the case drew millions of views.
The reaction was divided. Many comments expressed sympathy for Liu, the tycoon, and accused Liu Jingyao of pursuing legal actions for money. Like other #MeToo accusers in China, Liu Jingyao has faced an onslaught of criticism from the Chinese internet since the case went public.
Liu Jingyao’s supporters, meanwhile, have touted the outcome as a “historic moment.”
“Looking back at China’s #MeToo movement in the past four years, this pre-trial settlement is of great significance – it’s the result of a four-year struggle of Jingyao and feminists,” read a comment from one of her supporters.
A college student sues
Richard Liu, whose Chinese name is Liu Qiangdong, launched e-commerce platform JD.com in 2004. The company has since grown to be one of China’s largest and most successful, transforming Liu into one of the country’s wealthiest online entrepreneurs.
In 2018, he was visiting the University of Minnesota as part of a doctoral business administration program that caters to high-level executives from China when he met Liu Jingyao, then 21, who later accused him of rape.
The billionaire, who was 45 at the time of the alleged incident, was arrested by Minneapolis police in August 2018 on suspicion of sexual misconduct, but denied any wrongdoing.
Liu was released without charge and without having to post bail the following day and quickly returned to China. Prosecutors at the time cited “profound evidentiary problems” that would have made it hard to build a criminal case.
In April 2019, Liu Jingyao filed a civil lawsuit against the tycoon, seeking damages of over $50,000.
According to the complaint, Liu and the other guests pressured the plaintiff to drink excessive amounts of alcohol during their meal, which was paid for with a JD.com corporate credit card. While the Chinese student requested help securing transportation home via a ride service, she was instead directed to a limo with him, she said.
The suit stated that Liu groped the woman during the car ride and tried to remove her clothes despite her repeatedly asking him to stop. He later assaulted the woman in her apartment, according to the complaint.
By the time the case was filed, Liu had relinquished day-to-day management of JD.com – and this April he stood down as CEO, one of a series of high-profile departures at China’s tech companies amid increased government scrutiny of the technology industry and policy shifts to redistribute wealth more equally in the country.
Bringing the #MeToo battle to court
Sexual assault accusations rarely get to trial in China, and even if they do, the plaintiffs often face a difficult battle as the courts give little credence to testimony and place a heavy emphasis on “smoking gun” evidence, according to legal experts.
Against that backdrop, the Liu court settlement is seen as a mark of some progress amid legal setbacks in China.
In August, a court in China rejected an appeal by Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former state television intern, against the dismissal of her long-running landmark #MeToo case accusing a star presenter of sexual harassment.
Zhou, better known as Xianzi in China, became the face of the country’s #MeToo movement in 2018 when she publicly accused state television host Zhu Jun of groping and forcibly kissing her in a dressing room four years earlier when she was a 21-year-old intern.
Zhu, who was 50 at the time of the alleged incident, denied the accusation and sued Zhou for defamation. She then countersued, sparking a years-long legal battle that coincided with a wider crackdown by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on feminist activism and online discussion of women’s rights.
In a statement posted to her WeChat account, Zhou praised Liu Jingyao for standing up against powerful figures like Richard Liu in a case she said had “changed the times.”
“In these four years, she fought for feminists to give the biggest (platform) to discuss what is rape culture and what is power sexual assault,” Zhou said.
“Jingyao’s resistance four years ago was an extremely rare show of courage – it is not uncommon for business bosses to prey on young girls, but she is the first person to stand up, this is the courage beyond human nature,” Zhou said.
“Don’t forget that when all this happened, Jingyao was just a student. To this day, she is still dealing with JD.com’s strong public relations and well-paid lawyers,” she said.
“This was the best she and her lawyers can achieve. Her courage and persistence in the past four years was already a miracle.”
CNN’s Nectar Gan and Michelle Toh contributed to this report.