Supporters of Chinese billionaire's accuser decry censorship
BEIJING (AP) — For three years, Chen Chun published articles on his public WeChat account touching on politics, philosophy and current affairs — subjects that are often censored on Chinese social media.
More recently, the writer in southern China has focused on the country's growing #MeToo movement. He drew attention to several sexual assault cases, and collected money for victims' families.
Yet it was only after Chen advocated support for Jingyao Liu, a woman who accused online shopping giant JD.com founder Richard Liu of rape in Minnesota, that his account was permanently shut down.
WeChat informed Chen this week that his account could no longer be used because it shared an online petition in support of Jingyao Liu which "violated regulations." Five other accounts that were circulating the petition with the hashtag #HereForJingyao have also been disabled in recent days.
"This is a pretty big case," Chen told The Associated Press. "It's quite meaningful because in China we haven't yet had a case that reaches this level."
Billionaire Richard Liu is the most high-profile Chinese businessperson to be publicly accused of sexual assault. University of Minnesota student Jingyao Liu alleges in a lawsuit filed in Minneapolis last month that the 46-year-old internet tycoon forced himself upon her in his vehicle and later raped her at her apartment last summer.
The two Lius are not related. Richard Liu is also known by his Chinese name, Liu Qiangdong.
Richard Liu was initially arrested on suspicion of felony rape, but prosecutors announced in December that he would not face criminal charges because the case had "profound evidentiary problems." His defense attorneys said at the time that his arrest was based on a false claim.
Jingyao Liu was 21 years old when the alleged attack took place, according to the lawsuit. The Associated Press does not generally name alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent, but the law firm representing her said she agreed to be named.
She is seeking damages of more than $50,000.
The case has stirred intense online debate, as China's #MeToo movement grapples with the first allegation against a prominent business leader. Advocacy for sexual assault victims has gained considerable traction despite persistent censorship, but most of those publicly accused have been university professors.
"This case is different because it involves a business mogul," said Chen, who believes that Richard Liu's financial might has allowed him to press a strong defense in the court of public opinion — an option not available to most who have been accused of sexual assault in China. JD.com is China's biggest online direct retailer, and his fortune is estimated at $7.5 billion.
Supporters of both parties have waged aggressive online public relations campaigns claiming to show the truth of what happened the night of the alleged rape.
Last Monday, two edited surveillance videos of Richard Liu and Jingyao Liu were posted on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform by a recently created anonymous account. The videos show the two at a group dinner, in an elevator and walking arm-in-arm that night.
An attorney for Richard Liu, who showed the AP full, unedited surveillance videos from a restaurant and apartment complex, said they provide a different account of what transpired.
"The way it gets described sounds so much more nefarious than it actually is," said attorney Jill Brisbois. "She's step-in-step with him at every point." While the woman has alleged she was impaired and coerced to drink, she appears to be walking without assistance and linking her arm with the businessman's.
Chen said Jingyao Liu also sent him and other supporters the full surveillance videos, which they edited themselves and posted online along with their own interpretations in support of the woman.
It is not clear who is behind the account that first posted the videos. The account, called "Minnesota Events," said it was "exposing" Jingyao Liu's "intimate manner" in appearing to invite Richard Liu inside her apartment. The account user did not respond to requests for comment.
After the first surveillance videos were posted, some online commentators attacked Jingyao Liu, saying they were evidence she had been a willing participant. In response, other Weibo users rallied around the hashtag #I'mNotaPerfectVictimEither — a rebuke of what they said were unrealistic standards imposed on sexual assault victims.
The law firm representing Jingyao Liu said the videos are consistent with what she told law enforcement officials and alleged in her lawsuit. The videos don't show what happened in the apartment or in the car, which are the core of her allegations.
"An incomplete videotape and the silencing of WeChat supporters will not stop a Minnesota jury from hearing the truth," said Wil Florin, an attorney for the accuser.
Associated Press researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing and writer Amy Forliti in Minneapolis contributed to this report.