Three years ago, Zhou Xiaoxuan became the face of China's fledgling #MeToo movement when she took Zhu Jun, a prominent host at state broadcaster CCTV, to court, accusing him of groping and forcibly kissing her in a dressing room during her internship in 2014.
Sexual harassment lawsuits were rarely seen in China at the time, and Zhou's case was widely regarded a barometer for the country's progress on addressing entrenched gender inequality.
On Tuesday, that landmark legal battle ended in Zhou's defeat. A court in Beijing ruled against
her after a long-delayed second hearing, citing "insufficient evidence."
Zhu, 57, is a former member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a top political advisory body to the Chinese government. He is best known for having hosted CCTV's annual Lunar New Year gala -- the most-watched TV show in China with more 700 million viewers -- for two decades since 1997.
Zhu has not directly commented on the case in public. He has denied all allegations through his lawyer and filed a separate lawsuit against Zhou for defamation, according to a statement
from his lawyer in 2018.
The ruling is likely to deal a further blow to the country's struggling women's rights movement. Despite rising awareness about gender equality, young feminists in China face increasingly stringent censorship, unrelenting state harassment and misogynist attacks from online nationalists
. Zhou's account on Weibo, China's Twitter-like platform, was suspended in July for violating "Weibo complaint regulations."
Emerging from the courthouse at about midnight after Tuesday's closed-door hearing, which lasted about 10 hours, Zhou told dozens of supporters that she planned to appeal.
"I've exhausted all my efforts," said a tearful Zhou, also known by her nickname Xianzi. "I feel very regretful that I couldn't give everyone a better result."
"You did great! You've already done so much," her supporters shouted in reply, according to videos shared by people at the scene.
Zhou accused the court of failing to ensure procedural fairness. She said the judge had refused her repeated requests to retrieve corroborating evidence, such as security camera footage outside the dressing room.
Zhou's case is a reality check for China's stifled #MeToo movement, which was recently thrust back into the spotlight following two explosive rape allegations involving a top celebrity and a tech giant. Last month, Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu was formally arrested
on suspicion of rape following online accusations. Police also detained an Alibaba manager over sexual assault allegations
made by an employee, though prosecutors later dropped the case
In both cases, authorities acted swiftly following public outcry, but the official narrative avoided any mention
of the broader problem of deep-rooted gender inequality, and cast blame on foreign influence and the entertainment industry instead.
As Zhou's long-running case illustrated, survivors of gender-based violence in China can face grueling legal battles, even though the country now has a new civil code defining what constitutes sexual harassment.
"Survivors in Xianzi's position face near-insurmountable odds because courts give little credence to testimony and are looking for 'smoking gun' evidence," said Darius Longarino, a research scholar at Yale Law School who has worked extensively on China's gender equality issues.
"Zhu Jun is powerful, and it seems like outside political pressure was tipping the scales even further in his favor," he said.
Throughout Tuesday, the Beijing court was closely guarded by scores of uniformed police officers and plainclothes security personnel, who cordoned off streets, checked people's identification cards, kept a close watch on the crowds and at one point snatched a protest sign from a supporter, according to witnesses at the scene.
When Zhou appeared outside the court prior to the hearing -- clutching a bouquet of flowers and a copy of China's civil code in her hands -- she was ushered away by unidentified men and women before she could finish her speech.
As the hearing proceeded, another battle was being waged on social media by censors. On Weibo, users who shared photos and videos of the scene outside the courthouse and updates on Zhou's case found their accounts suspended for a week or longer.
But many remained undeterred.
"Xianzi's case has become a point of connection and hope for Chinese women...We won't use the result to define our efforts in the past three years. It's great comfort and encouragement to see more and more people sharing our path," said Ashley Xie, who waited outside the courthouse in support of Zhou throughout the hearing.
"No matter how difficult it may be to speak up in the future, we will carry on. Once ignited, the sparks of #MeToo can never be extinguished."
Lv Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist now based in New York, said over the past three years, Zhou's case sparked public discussions and significantly raised social awareness about sexual harassment. It also contributed to the growth of China's feminist community and exposed the many flaws in the country's legal system, she added.
"She did not win the case, but its significance and impact on civil society in the process is huge -- and that won't disappear just because of the outcome of the ruling," she said.
In the small hours on Wednesday, Zhou posted a statement on Chinese social media app WeChat pledging to continue her fight to her supporters online.
"There is no shame in failure. I'm honored to have stood with everyone in the past three years...It wasn't an easy matter, but an extremely arduous and glorious journey," she wrote. "Thanks everyone, I will definitely appeal."