One of the strongest sexual assault allegations against Chinese business tycoons came to an abrupt end last weekend. Liu Qiangdong, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, also known as Richard Liu, has settled with Liu Jingyao, a former University of Minnesota student who claimed the billionaire raped her in her apartment in 2018.
The announcement was made in a joint statement by the two sides on Saturday, just two days before Mr. Liu was scheduled to face a civil trial in Minneapolis, during which the press he would have been allowed to live tweet from the courtroom. The settlement amount was not disclosed
The joint statement neither denied nor confirmed Ms Liu’s claims, saying only that the incident between Mr Liu and Ms Liu (unrelated) “led to a misunderstanding that drew public attention and caused deep distress to the parties and families their. “
“Today, the parties have agreed to set aside their differences and settle their litigation in order to avoid further pain and suffering caused by the lawsuit.”
Some may see the result as yet another case of powerful figures avoiding legal ramifications by using their power and money. But others argue that this is already a step forward for China’s beleaguered #MeToo movement. Mr Liu has previously denied rape charges and could have used his financial prowess to defend his alleged innocence during the trial. Conversely, a settlement could imply tacit admission of wrongdoing.
“This is such a historic moment for the four-year-old #Metoo movement in China, as the settlement remains important to the outcome of Jingyao’s and feminists’ struggle,” said a blog post by the group Free Chinese Feminist. “The settlement also confirms the facts denied by Liu Qiangdong and JD.com and acknowledges that Liu Qiangdong continued to hide the truth.”
The case has drawn widespread attention in China, and many have been waiting for the trial to reveal more details of the case against one of China’s richest men, a scenario that would be nearly impossible in China where sexual allegations have historically been kept quiet.
Online discussions of the #MeToo affair at least seem to be allowed. On the microblogging platform Weibo, the settlement news hashtag has garnered over 40 million views. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Chinese censors are unlikely to side with an e-commerce boss as Beijing reins in the unlimited power of the internet sector.
Mr. Liu, whose crude speeches and marriage to an Internet celebrity were often the subject of tabloid news, has largely withdrawn from public life since the case broke. In April, the 49-year-old executive stepped down as CEO of JD’com after founding the online retailer, hailed as the Amazon of China, some 24 years ago. He remains the chairman of the company’s board of directors.
The four-year legal entanglement did not appear to dampen investor confidence in JD.com. The company’s share price has nearly doubled to $50 apiece since September 2018, when Mr. Liu first faced sexual harassment allegations, although shares are still down 50% from a high in February 2021. With a market capitalization of around $77 billion, JD .com is the 20th largest company in China at the time of writing.
JD.com hasn’t fared too badly amid China’s overall tech crackdown. Most of the country’s Internet giants have lost a significant chunk of their market capitalization following a series of regulations on monopolies, data practices and more. Alibaba’s stock is down 70% from an October 2020 high, and Tencent’s is down 66% from its February 2021 peak.