Liu Jingyao is not the first young woman to accuse a powerful Chinese businessman of rape. She is not the only Chinese woman to confront a man and seek legal charges against him.
But she is one of the first to pursue her case in an American courtroom.
That could make all of the difference for Ms. Liu — and for the nascent #MeToo movement in China.
Jury selection begins Thursday in Minneapolis in the civil trial against one of the world’s most prominent tech billionaires, known as Richard Liu in the English-speaking world and as Liu Qiangdong in China. He is the founder of JD.com, an e-commerce giant in China that draws comparisons there to Amazon.
Ms. Liu, who is unrelated to Mr. Liu, says that the businessman followed her back to her Minneapolis apartment and raped her after an alcohol-soaked 2018 dinner for Chinese executives that she attended as a University of Minnesota volunteer, according to court filings. He has denied the allegations, insisting that the sex was consensual.
Local prosecutors that year declined to charge Mr. Liu with sexual assault, noting that it was a “complicated situation” and that there were “profound evidentiary problems” that would have made it highly unlikely that a criminal charge could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But Ms. Liu, who remains in the United States and has endured a barrage of attacks on Chinese social media, has persisted in her efforts to hold him accountable through the civil court system, where the burden of proof is lower.
The trial is significant for the fact that it is happening at all. Mr. Liu is one of the highest-profile Chinese figures who have been accused of sexual assault or rape to face the scrutiny of a courtroom jury. Such accusations against well-known business executives and politicians rarely make it to trial in China, where the ruling Communist Party has repeatedly quashed the country’s small but spirited #MeToo movement.
Xiaowen Liang, a Chinese feminist activist and lawyer based in New York, said that while the events had taken place halfway across the world in Minneapolis, the story was all too familiar for women in China.
“Many women in China have had similar experiences with this workplace culture of drinking, dinner and sexual harassment,” Ms. Liang said.
If Ms. Liu won the case, she added, it could inject some much-needed momentum into China’s struggling #MeToo movement by inspiring Chinese feminists to continue their advocacy. “Especially under these circumstances where all the grass-roots organizing effort has been cracked down on in China, this would be the win that we all need.”
The case has riveted China since the accusations first surfaced, and the trial comes at an exceedingly sensitive time for the country’s top leader, Xi Jinping, who is expected to take an unprecedented third term during an important political meeting that opens in Beijing on Oct. 16.
Such events are often tightly choreographed, and official censors typically go into overdrive before the meetings to minimize disruptions. The Chinese government authorities may see the accusations against Mr. Liu as less threatening because he is a private sector executive, but they also may not want the case to draw attention away from Mr. Xi.
The trial is expected to shed new light on the private dealings of China’s political and business elite — information that the Communist Party would almost certainly prefer to keep hidden. In her court filings, Ms. Liu has already recounted details, including conversations about private jets and mistresses, that describe an unseemly side to wealthy, jet-setting Chinese businessmen with high-level political connections.
According to court documents, among those who attended the Minneapolis dinner were Li Botan, the son-in-law of Jia Qinglin, a former member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s elite decision-making body; and Li Wa, who has gone into business with Mr. Xi’s brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui.
Ms. Liu, who grew up in China, had just transferred to the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in the summer of 2018 when a professor recruited her to volunteer for a weeklong business executive program. Toward its end, she said in court filings, one of the Chinese executives invited her to a Japanese restaurant in Minneapolis for what she thought was a dinner to honor the volunteers.
When she showed up, she was shown to a seat at a table with 15 middle-aged men and was instructed to sit beside Mr. Liu, she said in court documents. At Chinese business dinners, it is customary for young women to be placed next to important middle-aged men to entertain them. Among the group of men, Mr. Liu was the best known — a celebrity in China, known for his humble beginnings, his enormous wealth and his high-profile marriage to Zhang Zetian, a social media icon known as Sister Milk Tea.
Over the course of the more than two-hour dinner, according to the filings, the party made numerous toasts, and Ms. Liu was pressured to drink repeatedly. The man sitting across from Ms. Liu passed out on the table from drinking, based on surveillance video submitted to the court.
After the dinner, Ms. Liu left with Mr. Liu and two of his assistants in a chauffeured car. Inside, Mr. Liu began to grope Ms. Liu without her consent, she said. The chauffeur said in his deposition that Mr. Liu had “overpowered” and “manhandled” Ms. Liu at one point, but he also told the police that he hadn’t heard anyone protesting or asking for help.
Mr. Liu accompanied Ms. Liu back to her apartment and entered uninvited, she asserted in the filings. Several hours later, after a “prolonged struggle” inside the apartment, Ms. Liu told a fellow volunteer that she had been raped. The person contacted the police, she said in the filings.
“We have gathered so much more evidence than the police did in their investigation,” said Wil Florin, a lawyer for Ms. Liu.
Mr. Liu’s team disputed Ms. Liu’s account and said her recollection of events had shifted. They have pointed to statements given by Ms. Liu in which she wavered on the question of whether she was raped. They have also cited surveillance video that appeared to show Ms. Liu pressing the elevator buttons in her apartment building without hesitation, saying it contradicted her statement to police that she had been too drunk to see the buttons clearly.
“There are dozens and dozens of inconsistent statements she has made — and big ones,” said Diane Doolittle, an attorney for Mr. Liu.
Outside the community of overseas Chinese students and diaspora Chinese, the case has drawn a muted reaction in the United States compared with other #MeToo cases. Some local activists, though, have raised questions about the University of Minnesota’s handling of the events, including the role a professor played in helping Mr. Liu secure a lawyer in the immediate aftermath of his arrest.
Jake Ricker, a university spokesman, said that the university typically did not comment on active litigation. He added that the university had “fully and appropriately” responded to the situation when it arose in 2018.
Ms. Liu graduated from the university last spring and is currently in a graduate program at Washington University in St. Louis. She is seeking compensation and punitive damages in the case against Mr. Liu and JD.com. The dinner was paid for using a JD.com corporate credit card, according to her filings. Mr. Liu stepped down as chief executive of JD.com in April, though he remains chairman of the company.
Mr. Liu, who is worth as much as $11.5 billion, according to Forbes, is expected to testify in court in Minneapolis after the trial begins on Oct. 3, his lawyers said. Over the weekend, photos on Chinese social media appeared to show Mr. Liu shopping at a store in Minneapolis with his pregnant wife.
Ms. Liu said in court filings that the sexual assault had caused her to experience post-traumatic stress disorder and that she was under a constant cloud of fear that Mr. Liu could use his power and influence to retaliate against her and her family in China. For nearly two years after she came forward, Ms. Liu faced an onslaught of criticism from Chinese internet users. Hashtags relating to her case were viewed hundreds of millions of times. On social media, she was called “a slut,” “a liar” and “a gold digger,” among other names.
But Ms. Liu has a strong base of supporters. In 2019, many rallied behind Ms. Liu using hashtags like #NoPerfectVictim, sparking a broader debate in China about rape culture and consent.