More than two years ago, He Qian, a former journalist in China, made allegations of sexual assault against a well-known reporter. Her story spread widely on the internet and helped give strength to China’s burgeoning #MeToo movement.
Now Ms. He, 32, is being punished for it. A Chinese court ruled this week that she violated libel laws by making her allegations public.
She and a friend, Zou Sicong, who helped share her story online, were ordered to pay more than $ 1,800 in legal fees and damages to the man Ms. Er accused of assaulting, Deng Fei, a journalist a Chinese magazine. Mr. Deng has denied the allegations.
“Chinese law needs to do more to respond to #MeToo,” said Ms. He, who also uses the first name Belinda, in an interview. “This is just the beginning and nowhere near enough.”
Ms. He’s case was a closely watched test of the Chinese government’s tolerance of the country’s small but spirited #MeToo movement. The court’s decision in the eastern city of Hangzhou highlights the challenges facing women in China who bring allegations of sexual harassment and assault against prominent men.
#MeToo has grown in prominence in China in recent years, despite the Communist Party’s government’s strict limits on activism and dissent and its strict control over the internet. A number of prominent men in Chinese companies, religious institutions and universities were forced to resign after women spoke about harassment and abuse.
But there remain many obstacles. Rape and sexual harassment are often considered taboo topics in China. The authorities often discourage women from filing complaints. And in recent years men accused of harassment have sued their accusers for libel. Critics say this is an attempt to intimidate and silence them.
In her article, circulated online in China after Mr. Zou posted it on his social media account, Ms. He wrote about her 2009 time as a 21-year-old intern at Phoenix Weekly, a Chinese magazine, in which Mr. Deng was the chief journalist. She said that Mr. Deng invited her to a hotel room to discuss stories, then forcibly kissed and groped her.
After the article was published, Mr. Deng sued both Ms. He and Mr. Zou for defamation.
The Hangzhou court joined Mr. Deng and said that Ms. He and Mr. Zou did not provide enough evidence to support the alleged attack. “What you have described is lacking factual evidence and legal basis,” the court said.
Ms. He and Mr. Zou said they would appeal the decision.
Mr. Deng did not respond to a request for comment. “I’ve never done anything so bad and stupid,” he wrote in a recent social media post about Ms. He’s allegations. He said he couldn’t remember meeting her.
Mr. Zou said Chinese law should be more responsive to women who make allegations of assault and harassment.
“The hope that a topic will just go away and return to the old world is ignorant and compulsive,” he wrote on WeChat, a popular social media app. “I will take responsibility for publishing the article on He Qian until the end.”
For activists who want to protect women’s rights and defend themselves against the patriarchal culture of China, the decision was a setback.
Feng Yuan, co-founder of a nonprofit women’s rights group in Beijing, said the court had “fully denied the existence of sexual harassment.”
“Many people will feel even more powerless in the face of sexual harassment,” said Ms. Feng.
Despite the government’s efforts to curb activism, the #MeToo movement in China has achieved some success and continues to be supported by women from diverse backgrounds.
A court in Beijing last month tried the case of Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former intern at the Chinese state broadcaster, who accused a celebrity television personality, Zhu Jun, of sexual assault. (Mr. Zhu has denied the allegations.) Dozens of people gathered outside, some with signs with the hashtag #MeToo, to show support, which is rarely seen in Chinese lawsuits.
Despite the court’s decision, Ms. He said she would pursue her case. She said she was encouraged that her case had sparked a discussion on women’s rights in China.
“The worst possible scenario,” she said, “would be if no one was discussing or paying attention to this issue and no one dared to stand up.”
Albee Zhang contributed to the research.