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JD.com Billionaire Richard Liu’s Arrest is Forcing China to Have New Conversations

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UPDATE 09/09/18: In the time since this post was published, the woman whose image was widely publicized as that of Richard Liu’s accuser has come forward to deny her connection to the case. She wrote on Weibo: “I do not know Richard Liu at all. We have never met. I’ve not even been to the US recently. This incident has absolutely no connection to me.”

Last weekend, the billionaire founder of online shopping giant JD.com Liu Qiangdong (also known as Richard Liu) was arrested in the United States on suspicion of rape. He was released a day later without charge, but the ensuing media firestorm had already been lit. Liu’s mugshot has since been pasted over a wide array of news outlets, and message boards are rattling with a conveyor belt of reactions, discussion, and memes.

But Liu’s case is only the most recent in an ongoing string of scandals across China’s tech sector, and to expand the lens, across high-power individuals in several industries.

Last month, a Buddhist temple famous for its self-developed robot monks and hi-tech approach to religion found itself in a different spotlight when its head abbot and director of the Buddhist Association of China, Xuecheng, was accused of sexual assault and rape.

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Mobike, one of the country’s leading shared bike providers, has been rocked by accusations of sexual misconduct against a senior employee, while Didi, the Uber-like ride hailing service, is currently facing intense scrutiny following the rape and murder of one of its passengers at the hands of her driver two weeks ago — the second such case in three months.

The consistent but diverse stream of sex crimes in the news cycle is forcing people in China to engage in long-overdue dialogues on the issue.

The Didi news triggered a conversation of its own: how should businesses balance profit with customer safety? Didi, now eyeing international markets, has grown into a domestic juggernaut at a pace that its safety measures couldn’t match — while the killer driver had no criminal record, there’d been a customer complaint filed against him one day prior for repeatedly suggesting his female passenger sit in the front seat, and for following her after she got out of the car.

The customer service agent didn’t follow up with the complaint within two hours, as per Didi’s guarantee, and in the era of #MeToo, these kinds of events can no longer be swept under the rug. Facing a growing call for the company to take responsibility for its oversights, Didi’s founder and president had no choice but to take full ownership in a statement:

“We see clearly this is because our vanity overtook our original belief. We raced non-stop, riding on the force of breathless expansion and capital, through these few years; but this has no meaning in such a tragic loss of life,” read one excerpt.

Didi has since struggled to find a suitable response as calls for a boycott have grown, first doing away with its “hitching” option for rides and most recently announcing that it will suspend all late night services temporarily while its drivers undergo further security checks.

A number of China’s leading livestreaming platforms including Huya have also been sucked into the scandal after it emerged that numerous Didi drivers had been livestreaming their activities and filming passengers without their prior consent. A number of platforms have since announced crackdowns on such secret filming.

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Suppression, Perseverance and Anger: #MeToo in China Gains Momentum Against the Odds

But for Xuecheng and Liu, the conversation has focused on the individuals themselves, and since news of the latter dropped, social media has been alive with discussion. The responses vary from support, to skepticism, to memes, to breakdowns of the American legal system.

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There’s a fair bit of mansplaining going on, which is no surprise in China, where open discussion of sexual misconduct is still a new phenomenon in its own right. People are still coming to terms with the all-too-common reality of sexual assault, and many netizens’ first instinct was to defend Liu:

“I feel like brother Liu has been set up! I don’t believe any of it!”, read one comment on microblogging service Sina Weibo with almost three million likes.

“I don’t buy it! My first reaction is that somebody who can control such a big company can surely control his own lower body. I think it’s more likely that he’s been set up.”

Many media voices, too, pointed towards Liu’s innocence.

“It seems that this kind of thing can happen easily in a foreign country. A lot of athletes and stars have been seduced, and then if they don’t give up money, they get sued,” wrote one entertainment news platform on Weibo, pictured above.

But others have rejected the notion that a businessman of Liu’s status would not stoop to the crime. “The essence of a man has nothing to do with his appearance, education, status, or wealth,” one Weibo user stated plainly.

There is, however, room to grow — the vast majority of comments have been about the accuser’s looks, drawing sneering comparisons between her and Liu’s wife.

Update: The woman on the right below, Jiang Pingtang has released a statement on her Weibo declaring that this incident has nothing to do with her. She claims to have never met Liu and to not even have been in the US recently.

Left: Liu’s wife, Right: Liu’s alleged accuser

What might be the most interesting, however, is the discussion of legal terminology happening in mainstream news right now. Immediately after the headline hit that Liu had been arrested, people began to question what it means to be “arrested” in the United States, and media was quick to fill the knowledge gap with explanations of terms like accused, arrested, charged, and convicted.

For the first time, the public is reading thorough explanations of which actions constitute sexual misconduct in the US — these are the kinds of steps that could help bring the issues of #MeToo in China from the abstract into the concrete for the general public.

One headline published in North American Study Abroad Daily promised an unbiased interpretation of the news. It broke down the processes of arrest and bail, public police information, probable cause, warrants, and maximum length of detention. It went into plea bargains, and showed pictures of what county-level courtrooms look like in the United States. At the top of the article read a disclaimer that the text had been reviewed by a licensed US attorney.

And aside from the nature of the conversations being generated, the fact that there are conversations happening at all is remarkable.

#MeToo in China was originally met with suppression. When prominent government academics, or figures from state-affiliated bodies like CCTV came under accusation, censors quickly silenced discussion online. But talk of Liu’s case remains alive and well. This may be a result of public pushback against previous #MeToo censorship, or may simply be that Liu just isn’t coated with the same internet armor that protects political figures, but censors have seemed more careful to pick their battles.

While figures who represent an extension of the State can constitute sensitive topics, players in the country’s business enterprises are apparently fair game. CEOs of powerful companies tend to have big public personas. They function as the faces of their brands, and as direct mediums for public opinion. Their speeches receive millions of views, at home and overseas, and their gaffs and failures reverberate through to their companies’ bottom lines.

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When Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun went viral for his emphatic delivery of the line “are you OK?” as he struggled to express himself in English at a conference in India, comparisons were immediately drawn between Xiaomi and internet giant Baidu, whose CEO is known for his excellent English skills. When Alibaba’s Jack Ma belts out the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” or stars opposite Jet Li in a self-produced kung fu film, it scores points with consumers. It’s another reason Didi’s founder and president were both so quick to put out the above statement of responsibility — in China, the line between a company’s leadership and the company itself can be a thin one.

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Too often, sexual misconduct comes tied to a larger-than-life influence, and for the country’s most successful businessmen, that can be an easy situation to find oneself in. As much as it is due to widespread praise and attention, it’s also due to a lofty lifestyle that breeds superiority complexes, and enables a disregard for conventional rules. But for a curious population, business scandals might be the platform for mainstream discussion that political scandals aren’t able to be.

For now, we await news in the Liu investigation. JD.com has remained staunch in its official Weibo statement that there was “no substance” to the “unsubstantiated accusation.” With China’s #MeToo movement revived and now undoubtedly in full swing, the public watches as dormant systems all seem ready to come to a head, one way or another.

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Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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