A Chinese court has upheld the verdict of the country’s first successful prosecution for sexual harassment since the #MeToo movement.
On July 1, the Wuhou District People’s Court in Chengdu maintained its 2019 ruling that Liu Meng, director general of a non-profit organisation in southwest China's Sichuan province, had to apologise to social worker “Xiaoli”.
Xiaoli, a pseudonym, sued Liu for sexual harassment in 2018. In a public letter, she said that when alone with him in 2015, he held on to her waist in a lingering hug. She protested loudly and struggled free. Later, she found that her other women colleagues had also been harassed which prompted her to step forward and file a lawsuit.
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The court ruled last June that Liu’s actions overstepped boundaries, had obvious sexual suggestions and not only went against Xiaoli’s will, but also caused her mental stress.
It ruled that the act constituted sexual harassment and the court ordered that he issue an apology within 15 days.
Both parties appealed after the first verdict. Liu wanted the ruling revoked, while Xiaoli wanted compensation for her mental stress, and for the organisation, One Day For Social Service Centre, to be held accountable.
After the verdict was upheld this month, 29-year-old Xiaoli said the court process had been arduous and came at a high emotional and personal cost.
“It’s hard to describe my feelings. In the first trial, I was feeling my way across the river, I was fighting, and now two years down the road … it has been very exhausting and consuming, very tough,” Xiaoli told the South China Morning Post.
“I found that after I spoke out about the sexual harassment, people just discussed it and forgot it. Now that the court has given me justice, I hope that the employer will also grant justice.”
Xiaoli’s lawyer Li Ying said: “The win in this case reflects the positive attitude of the trial. We and the victim are pleased with this, at least the law gave her justice. I hope that in the future there are targeted rules of evidence gathering because sexual harassment and domestic violence are similar, generally hidden and invisible.”
“It is regrettable that the court did not hold the employer liable and award moral damages, as the court of the first instance found moral injury, but the court of the second instance did not,” said Li, who is also the founder of the Beijing-based Yuanzhong Gender Development Centre.
After the 2015 sexual harassment Xiaoli left to study and gained her master's degree in 2018 before returning to Chengdu to work. She eventually spoke out about the harassment.
During the lawsuit, Xiaoli worked for a consulting firm and took frequent leave because she had to file documents in court herself.
Before the second trial, she saw some of Liu’s clients testifying that he was a good person, which she said added to the psychological pressure.
“I was very independent and optimistic but because of this case sometimes my anger management would get out of control. I used to trust Liu Meng so much,” Xiaoli said.
“After more than two years and all the time and effort my lawyer and I have put into this, it seems to me that Liu Meng has not received proportional punishment.
“I've been living with this case for two whole years, and it’s embedded in my life, like a dark cloud overhead at all times. I should be happy, but I can’t be completely happy. I don’t feel like I deserve it.
“I still love the social work profession, helping the underprivileged and seeking justice, those are the values I live by. But I won't be in this profession any more.”
The lawyer, Li, said the verdict was a victory for more than just Xiaoli. “I am glad that the verdict gave justice to the victims. In the past two years we accompanied the victims throughout … The win in the civil case is a bit of a consolation for them.”
Liu, born in 1974, was well known in the non-profit world. He has held positions at the Sichuan provincial women's federation and the Chengdu Civil Affairs Bureau and has worked as a mentor at several local universities.
After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Liu served on the front line and won a string of awards. His organisation has also been awarded for its work and contribution to society.
Since the case was upheld, however, the Ginkgo Foundation, one of China’s most well-known public charity organisations, has revoked the “Ginkgo Fellow” award Liu received in 2011.
“Liu Meng is no longer qualified to be a Ginkgo Fellow due to the abominable social impact he created … the case is the first successful lawsuit against sexual harassment and we would like to show respect for the plaintiff’s courage and persistence,” the foundation said in a notice.
During the trial, the Liu’s lawyer tried to prove that Xiaoli had been close to Liu initially.
They also showed a screenshot of one of her social media posts which talked about The Vagina Monologues – a play that explores a variety of women’s topics, including consensual sex, reproduction, vaginal care and menstruation – as proof that she was “loose with her language”.
Even though she won, the case has affected Xiaoli’s life.
Her lawyer said emotional damage should not be ignored just because there was no medical certificate to prove it.
“I expect the court in the future to find the employer liable in a sexual harassment case, and I hope that there is a precedent, although we didn’t meet that expectation in this case,” Li said.
“The Civil Code defines sexual harassment and requires the employer to take measures to prevent sexual harassment, but there is no particular clarity on legal liability.”
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