China accused of blocking posts from supporters of Minnesota student who accused Chinese billionaire of rape

·5-min read
Richard Liu, the founder and chairman of China e-commerce firm JD.com, has been described as China’s answer to Jeff Bezos  (Reuters)
Richard Liu, the founder and chairman of China e-commerce firm JD.com, has been described as China’s answer to Jeff Bezos (Reuters)

Supporters of a Minnesota woman who alleges that she was raped by a Chinese billionaire while he was visiting her school campus claim that their social media posts in China are being blocked after voicing their support for her case.

Prominent Chinese feminist activists and students at the University of Minnesota allege that the Chinese social media app WeChat is intentionally blocking their posts about billionaire Richard Liu and his company JD.com, which is frequently compared to being a Chinese answer to Amazon, and the allegations that he raped a student at the university, the Star Tribune reported.

Jingyao Liu, now 25, is currently suing the prominent internet entrepreneur over allegations that during a 2018 visit to the school – when the woman was a 21-year-old student – Richard Liu got her drunk at a private dinner held at a Minneapolis restaurant before escorting her back to her apartment and raping her.

According to court documents from the June hearing held at Hennepin County District Court, Ms Liu contacted a friend after the alleged incident took place and authorities were called.

Mr Liu, who is considered one of China’s richest men with a net worth of $10bn, according to Forbes Magazine, was later arrested, but released within hours.

For his part, Mr Liu, now 49, who was never criminally charged, maintains that the sex was consensual.

The county attorney’s office declined to charge him, stating that “it had not found enough evidence” back in December 2018. A few months later, however, Ms Liu brought the case forward to a Minnesota civil court, accusing Mr Liu of sexual assault and battery. She is seeking more than $50,000 in damages.

Though the story has been widely covered in the US, supporters of Ms Liu’s case are now alleging that their attempts to broadcast the proceedings, which are set to go to a jury trial this fall, have been obstructed by WeChat.

The Independent reached out to WeChat for comment on the allegations raised against the social media company but did not hear back immediately.

Xiaowen Liang, an outspoken Chinese feminist activist and lawyer based in New York, said in an interview with the Star Tribune that shortly after she shared an article about the court case on WeChat, an instant-message site in China that rakes in a billion active users each month, she noticed something odd.

Though the article itself had been viewed 100,000 times in the short time it had been live, it was soon blocked, followed quickly by her own WeChat account.

“I lost over 2,000 contacts,” she told the Minnesota-based paper. “In the past few years, the Chinese government has been cracking down on the MeToo activists in China and Chinese feminists,” she added. “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.”

Another student, who asked the newspaper to refrain from using their name out of fear of retaliation, told them how after he had shared Ms Liang’s article by copying it into his own post, his post was also blocked. And he was, like the original poster, locked out of his account for two weeks.

Both supporters of Ms Liu say they received a note on the app that stated their post “is being complained about by users and ... violated cyber security law of the People’s Republic of China.”

At one point in time, one of JD.com’s most significant investors were Tencent, which is the same Chinese conglomerate that runs WeChat, where the posts about the court proceedings against Mr Liu have allegedly been blocked.

According to the Star Tribune’s reporting, as recently as December 2021 the multinational corporation cut its investing in JD.com from 17 per cent to just 2.3 per cent.

The Independent reached out to Mr Liu’s company, JD.com, for comment on the allegations that supporters of the University of Minnesota student’s court case are being silenced by WeChat,but did not hear back immediately.

And though Mr Liu has described the owner of Tencent, Pony Ma, as a good friend when asked about during a May deposition, a spokesperson for JD.com told the Star Tribune that any suggested connection between the two businessmen’s companies is “patently false”.

“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,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email to the Star Tribune.

“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,” they added, emphasising that Tencent is no longer an investor in JD.com.

This recent alleged clamping down of accounts critical of a high-power man on Chinese social media platforms is just the latest example of what Chinese activists have previously argued is part of a larger online campaign to stamp out feminist voices in a country where the government controls what can and cannot be posted on the internet.

In an interview with The New York Times last year, Ms Liang described how she was suing Weibo for violating China’s civil code after the social media platform removed her account for sharing feminist-related content.

“I think having this space is especially important for young women on the internet,” she said to The Times about the internet companies that she and other activists say they have been targeted by.

In a statement from Weibo following the 2021 controversy, the social media company maintained that the accounts that had been taken down, which included Ms Liang’s, was done so because they they had posted “illegal and harmful” content. The statement also called on users to respect Weibo’s basic principles, which include “not inciting group confrontation and inciting a culture of boycott.”

The civil case against Mr Liu goes to jury trial on either 26 September or 3 October.