As tech billionaire Richard Liu Qiangdong ’s civil trial in the US on sexual assault claims approached, China’s #MeToo activists were making their own preparations for one of the movement’s most high profile cases. At a rented Airbnb in Minnesota, the fridge was stuffed with enough food for a week and a printer had been bought to churn out publicity material throughout the hearing. Liang Xiaowen, 30, was arranging for another 20 of her fellow activists to attend the trial in a Minneapolis court when she heard the news on October 2 – a settlement had been reached and the hearing cancelled, a day before it was due to start. “I was stunned, because our plans would need to be changed, ” Liang said. “But the next moment, I felt very, very relieved.” Liang, who lives in New York, had travelled to every preliminary hearing since Liu Jiangyao – no relation to the JD.com founder – filed the lawsuit in April 2019, accusing him of raping her in August the previous year, when she was a student at the University of Minnesota. Liu, now a 25-year-old graduate student, was seeking US$50,000 and additional punitive damages while the businessman denied the accusation. “This is a case with great attention from many #MeToo supporters, and we have also prepared ourselves for the entire month of court,” Liang said. Anxiety as the trial approached had caused her to lose hair and sleep, she said. “I can’t even start to imagine how much pressure [Jingyao] had to bear.” For many Chinese feminist activists, including Liang, the settlement has been a victory. “It’s a hard-earned win for both Jingyao and the #MeToo movement in China. We are grateful for all that Jingyao has done,” she said. JD.com founder Richard Liu reaches settlement in US lawsuit over alleged rape But what Liang described as a win appears to have been lost in translation among the wider public in China, where there has been huge interest in the accusations against one of the world’s richest men – ranked No. 28 among China’s richest in 2021, according to the Forbes Billionaires List. China’s microblogging platform Weibo was flooded with comments mocking Liu Jiangyao in response to posts with the hashtag “Liu Qiangdong’s case in Minnesota ended in settlement”. “In the end, it is still money that settles everything,” one commenter wrote. “This has been a high-end honeytrap all along! I wonder how much Brother Dong lost to this gold-digger,” another Weibo user said. Confusion over translation A joint statement by lawyers from both sides neither confirmed nor denied the claims and revealed no details of the settlement. “Today, the parties agreed to set aside their differences, and settle their legal dispute in order to avoid further pain and suffering caused by the lawsuit,” it said, adding that there would be no further comment from Liu Jingyao or her lawyer. JD.com founder Liu issued a separate statement on Sunday, apologising to his wife Zhang Zetian , and hoping his “life and work can go back to normal as soon as possible”. In its reporting, Chinese media quoted a translation of the joint statement which Liang and other observers say has caused confusion among online commenters. The phrase “set aside their differences” was translated as “solved their misunderstanding”. Liang, who is a practising lawyer in the US, said the Chinese version of the statement circulating in the media should have stuck to a more accurate and literal meaning. “Because ‘set aside’ [in English] does not mean the matter was ‘solved’,” she said. In a Chinese language statement shared by the Twitter account @Global4Jingyao, supporters explained why in their view the settlement is a win for the graduate. “If Liu Qiangdong was really innocent, would he really have given up on the case?” they said. “He has an overwhelming advantage in wealth, legal team and influence in the media,” the Twitter account said. Nuances matter Guo Ting, an assistant professor specialising in Chinese religion, politics and gender issues at the University of Toronto, is unsurprised the case has caused confusion in China. “It is not just the translation of legal language, but [also] the different interpretations of the legal system,” she said. China looks to ‘update and strengthen’ women’s rights law “If there were freedom of speech and freedom of the press, it would be easier for public discussion … Understandings could be forged over concepts and terminologies [in the #MeToo movement],” Guo said. “In China, there is no chance of witnessing legal procedure and receiving legal literacy from public education. The differences in media and [legal] systems lead to the difference in public discourse and in understanding.” Guo said the case had meant unique challenges from the start for activists trying to get their message across to the Chinese public, because of its handling in a US court while attracting huge public attention in China. Had it proceeded, the trial would have been a rare moment for China’s #MeToo movement because the arguments made and evidence presented would have been openly heard. #MeToo in China: academic fired after affair with student who fell pregnant According to Liang, even without a trial that purpose has been achieved. “I think the significance of Jingyao’s case to the Chinese movement is to let people see how a case would progress in a public hearing, in what ways Jingyao could fight for justice, and how we can express our support and spread messages,” she said. From the outset, Liang and other supporters of the accuser were aware of the case’s significance to China’s #MeToo movement. As legal documents relating to the matter were made accessible online and in court during the pre-trial period, they were translated and published on Chinese social media to boost public understanding of the case. 21st century China or 1950s America? With Beijing’s censors, it’s hard to tell How is the case relevant to the #MeToo movement in China? The rise of the global movement dedicated to raising awareness of sexual harassment quickly gained momentum in China around 2018, when a wave of Chinese women came forward on social media to say they had been assaulted and harassed. The Chinese government, which has a distaste for protests and social movements in civil society, attempted to quash the movement through censorship and arrests of protesting activists. Meanwhile, a new civil code enacted last year included a definition of sexual harassment at work for the first time. In August this year, a Beijing court dismissed a landmark appeal filed by Zhou Xiaoxuan, also known as Xianzi, who accused TV personality Zhu Jun of sexual harassment. The court ruled there was insufficient evidence. This was the same ruling given in the dismissal of the only two cases involving accusations of sexual harassment that went to court between 2010 to 2017, according to Beijing-based Yuanzhong Gender Development Centre, one of China’s top women’s rights organisations. A study by the centre found that, out of more than 50 million publicly available court verdicts in that period, just 34 related to the offence. China law expert Darius Longarino said the JD.com founder would have had a much higher chance of winning the case if it was handled in China, in part because of its high bar of evidence in civil suits. The burden of proof in allegations of harm caused by sexual harassment falls on the plaintiff, who must prove the claims to a degree of 75 to 85 per cent certainty, said Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Centre. ‘Laws don’t support women’: China’s #MeToo accusers crushed by burden of proof In contrast, the standard of proof in US civil cases is based on the preponderance of the evidence, “meaning the jury or judge, in that case, needs to decide whom they believe”, he said. “It is a relative concept. Whichever side’s evidence has more credibility, you can rule in their favour.” Minnesota prosecutors decided in December 2018 not to proceed with felony rape charges against the accused because of “profound evidentiary problems”. The future for China’s #MeToo movement Looking ahead, Guo believes #MeToo will continue to navigate a way forward, even without the publicity generated if the US case had gone to trial. China proposes first-ever sex offender registry to stem campus assault epidemic “The Chinese #MeToo movement has always been conducted in many different ways,” she said, describing it as “more powerful and resilient” than similar waves of activism in more democratic societies like Japan and Taiwan. “Even if there are no landmark cases to mark the momentum … it can continue to grow,” Guo said. Liang said she had not seen disappointment among Liu Jingyao’s supporters, who could imagine the spotlight and huge burden she would have been under if the case had continued. “Many people may have fantasised the plot as a heroine fighting against all odds who finally wins,” Liang said. “More often than not, this is not how real life goes.” China’s MeToo censorship sidestepped by creative netizens Before packing up to leave Minnesota, Liang and some of her fellow activists put up a banner on the university campus where Liu was a student when she first made the allegations. It reads: “The #MeToo movement will always go on.” Liu Jingyao’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Liu Qiangdong or JD.com’s lawyer or communications team. JD.com is an e-commerce competitor of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post.