When Liu Jingyao introduced herself, in the lobby of her apartment building, I didn’t recognize her. It was a puzzling feeling. For an entire year, photos of her had blanketed the Chinese internet. Like tens of millions of other Chinese, I had watched and rewatched surveillance video of her in this very building. She was one of the most talked about and mysterious women in China, and I thought I knew what she looked like.
In the video, she wanders the halls of a mazelike building, with a man trailing along. They get in and out of several elevators. She seems unsure about how to get to her apartment. She wears striking waist-length hair and a long dark knit dress. For a 21-year-old college junior, she is dressed smartly.
But on a morning in early August, she greeted me in a loosefitting checkered dress. Now 22, she looked pale and nervous. Her lips were chapped. She invited me upstairs and began an intense conversation that continued for 18 straight hours.
In the summer of 2018, Liu, a student at the University of Minnesota, alleged that the billionaire founder of one of China’s largest companies, JD.com, followed her back to her Minneapolis apartment and raped her. The executive, known as Liu Qiangdong in China and Richard Liu in the English-speaking world, was arrested by police and released within 24 hours. (He and Liu Jingyao are not related.) He insisted that the sex was consensual, and prosecutors declined to charge him. In April, Liu Jingyao accused Richard Liu of rape in a Minnesota civil court, seeking more than $50,000 in damages.
But hers is not a typical #MeToo story. After her name became common knowledge on the Chinese internet, Liu was widely called a slut, a whore, a liar, a gold digger and many other things. It may be difficult for Westerners to grasp the scale and intensity of her online shaming. But the Monica Lewinsky frenzy is a good comparison, had it taken place in the era of Twitter and YouTube in a country with 800 million internet users and no independent news media. When Liu and I met, it was the first time she had ever spoken to an English-language publication about what she has endured.
In her apartment, a 500-square-foot studio, Liu showed me photos of trips she had taken to Morocco, Greece and Spain, before all that had happened. She looked different then. Her eyes were brighter, and her smile looked unreserved.
When Liu transferred to the university a year ago, she chose the high-floor apartment in the Prospect Park neighborhood. Now, she said, she keeps the blinds down day and night. “I always have a feeling that someone is watching me from outside,” she said. “I want to be as inconspicuous as possible.”
It’s an understandable concern, given the social-media attention directed at Liu, which has been vast and often vicious. On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, her case has been one of the most popular topics of the last 18 months.
“The woman is a slut,” one commenter said. “The woman looks disgusting,” commented another. “It was obvious that they disagreed on the price,” added a third. And one suggested that Richard Liu was the actual victim, writing, “Look at the woman’s build, I absolutely believe that Liu Qiangdong was raped.”
These are just a few of the 8,500 comments on a single Weibo post, which was retweeted 14,000 times and liked by 95,000 users. Now imagine this, and worse, at scale, for months and months.
Liu’s case is attracting so much attention because she is accusing one of the country’s most powerful men of behavior that has long been ignored. Sexual harassment and assault are widespread in China, and elites face little scrutiny. Self-made tech tycoons are widely admired celebrities.
Among this class of billionaires, Richard Liu is one of the most high-profile. Born in a village in the eastern province of Jiangsu, he likes to recount how his family was able to afford meat only once or twice a year and how he went to college with $70 raised by his fellow villagers. He founded JD.com in the early days of Chinese e-commerce and turned the company into a logistics colossus. Liu became an entrepreneurial icon.
Liu only got more famous in 2015 when he married a 21-year-old student and internet celebrity named Zhang Zetian. By the summer of 2018, when he traveled to Minnesota, he was worth an estimated $7.5 billion.
Liu Jingyao grew up in Beijing, introverted and intense, the only child of an affluent family. Her father was a businessman, and her mother, Liu said, was strict and quick to scold or punish her. She insisted that Liu wear her hair short. Today, Liu’s waist-length cut is an act of rebellion.
In 2016, she went to a liberal arts college in Minnesota to study literature, while also practicing piano 2 ½ hours a day. She dreamed of becoming a diplomat or a professor of linguistics, but she was also interested in business. She transferred to the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in August 2018, where a professor recruited her to volunteer with a program for visiting international executives. One of them was Richard Liu.
Every morning, she got up early and took the executive visitors jogging. On the fifth day, she was invited to a group dinner at a Japanese restaurant. When she arrived, she found that she was the only volunteer — and the only woman — at a table of about a dozen middle-aged Chinese men. Surveillance video shows that one of the men directed her to sit next to Richard Liu. At Chinese business dinners, it is common for pretty young women to be placed next to powerful men to laugh at their lewd jokes.
In the next two hours, according to police, members of the party raised their glasses of red wine in at least 27 toasts. Liu Jingyao drank 19 times. The man sitting across from her passed out on the table and had to be carried away.
After dinner, she left in a limousine with Richard Liu and two of his female assistants. They drove to a house rented by one of the executives, but Liu Jingyao did not want to go in. The chauffeur later told officers that he saw Liu Jingyao and Richard Liu talking in front of his car.
“Then he grabbed her arm, kind of overpower her and bring her to my car in the back,” the chauffeur said, according to a transcript. “I look in my mirror, and this guy was all over this girl.” Then, he said, one of Richard Liu’s assistants pushed the mirror up to obscure the chauffeur’s view. The chauffeur told police that he didn’t hear anyone saying “stop” or “no,” or cry for help.
Richard Liu went with Liu Jingyao to her apartment. A few hours later, a friend of hers reported to police that Liu Jingyao had told him, via a messaging app, that she had been raped.
A spokesman for Richard Liu denied that account, saying, “The evidence released by the Minneapolis Police Department, including the written police report and surveillance video, does not support the accusations that have been made.”
1 woman vs. Chinese internet
In 2018, encouraged by the #MeToo movement elsewhere in the world, more than 50 Chinese women came forward with their stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted. The men accused included professors, journalists and leaders of nongovernmental organizations. Some of the men lost their jobs or resigned.
But the new movement started to lose its momentum around the time of Liu’s allegation. Men who had been publicly accused were starting to sue their accusers for defamation. Most important, the Chinese government, distrustful of independent social movements, clamped down on public discussion of gender issues.
Online allegations of sexual misconduct were one of the most heavily censored topics on WeChat, China’s biggest social-media platform, in 2018. The hashtags #MeToo and #Woyeshi — a Mandarin translation — were banned. Some of the WeChat accounts that voiced support for Liu Jingyao were deleted. WeChat is owned by Tencent, which is also the biggest shareholder of JD.com.
Liu’s experiences illustrate how Chinese society treats women who dare to speak up about sexual assault. Victims need to be seen as perfect to win any sympathy from the public, or they’ll be subject to immense slut-shaming. Younger women who sleep with older and powerful men, willingly or unwillingly, face even more public distain.
In December 2018, Hennepin County decided not to charge Richard Liu with sexual assault because they did not find enough evidence. They made the announcement without meeting with her. She said that when she heard the news, she felt “as if the sky had fallen.” But what came next on the Chinese internet was worse.
A few days after Liu filed her lawsuit, in April 2019, a heavily edited video surfaced on the Chinese internet. It was titled “Proof of a Gold Digger Trap?” and was cut to give the impression that she had invited Richard Liu to her apartment for sex. It was posted to Weibo by an account that had never posted anything before. One of his Chinese lawyers wrote online that the video was “authentic,” and it was viewed more than 54 million times.
Separately, one of China’s most influential newspapers published an edited audio clip, in which she can be heard asking Richard Liu’s lawyer for an apology and money. News of the recording was reposted widely. Taken together, the video and audio clip seemed to turn the whole of the Chinese internet against her.
‘The price of shame’
Liu said she felt powerless — that she couldn’t make the public see how scary it was for a 21-year-old to sit among a group of powerful middle-aged men and how she couldn’t make the most powerful among them leave her alone. Liu couldn’t make them see how creepy it was that a billionaire, who mingled with the Davos elite, followed a young woman around an apartment building that mostly housed students. She was angry at his two assistants and the other executives at the dinner: She saw them as complicit, but barely any public outrage had been directed at them.
She continues to hide in her apartment with her two Yorkshire terriers, waiting for developments in her lawsuit against Liu. Her parents are working in China. Her boyfriend has had visa trouble and can’t visit. Liu uses a pseudonym when ordering takeout food and Ubers, for fear that she’ll encounter a Chinese person who recognizes her name.
But Liu has, she said, turned out to be more resilient than she at first expected. True, she said, she has PTSD and is sometimes suicidal. But she’s determined to pursue the case.