The Chinese billionaire entrepreneur Richard Liu has reached a settlement with Liu Jingyao, a former University of Minnesota student who accused him of rape in a Minneapolis apartment after a night out in 2018, in a case that has riveted China and been held up as a landmark episode in China’s struggling #MeToo movement.
The agreement, which was announced in a joint statement late Saturday, came just two days before a civil trial was to begin in a Minneapolis courtroom. Lawyers from both parties said Mr. Liu and Ms. Liu, who are not related, had agreed to “set aside their differences” in order to avoid further pain and suffering. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.
“The incident between Ms. Jingyao Liu and Mr. Richard Liu in Minnesota in 2018 resulted in a misunderstanding that has consumed substantial public attention and brought profound suffering to the parties and their families,” the joint statement read.
The settlement is being held up by Chinese feminists as a qualified victory for the country’s beleaguered #MeToo movement, which has suffered numerous setbacks from the start. In China, the legal system offers little recourse for female victims, and rape is rarely discussed. Sexual harassment allegations are tamped down by cultural mores and government censors.
Within that environment, Ms. Liu’s accusations were explosive. While Ms. Liu faced an onslaught of criticism from Chinese internet users, her accusations against Mr. Liu also set off a broader debate in China about rape culture and consent.
“One of the most important things that emerged from Jingyao’s case is that it has been discussed widely by the public. I think that’s been hugely important for Chinese women and Chinese society more broadly,” said Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist based in New York. “It exposed the role of wealth and power in cases of sexual assault and exposed the sexual violence embedded in Chinese drinking culture.”
The deal also means that Mr. Liu, who is known as Liu Qiangdong in the Chinese-speaking world, will not have to face the scrutiny of a jury. And it will most likely come as welcome news for China’s ruling Communist Party, which is set to open an important political meeting on Oct. 16, during which Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, is expected to secure a third term in power.
The party’s determination to control the narrative around #MeToo was on vivid display last year, when the tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from the public eye for more than two weeks after publishing a social media post in which she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of pressuring her into sex. That post was swiftly deleted, and online conversations about Ms. Peng and her allegations were censored.
In the summer of 2018, while a student at the University of Minnesota, Ms. Liu, then 21, filed a police report alleging that Mr. Liu, who was married and in his mid-40s, had raped her after a boozy dinner at a Minneapolis restaurant. Mr. Liu was arrested by the Minneapolis police and released within 24 hours. Prosectors declined to press charges, citing insufficient evidence.
In April 2019, Ms. Liu filed a civil suit in a Minnesota court accusing Mr. Liu of rape. She sought more than $50,000 in damages, a standard amount that must be listed in Minnesota if a plaintiff intends to seek any larger amount. She was expected to ask a jury to award much more.
Mr. Liu has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual.
After filing the suit, Ms. Liu faced a torrent of disbelief and vitriol. A heavily edited social media video seeking to discredit the rape allegations purported to demonstrate how she had invited Mr. Liu up for sex. Numerous Chinese articles also supported the view that it was Ms. Liu who had escorted Mr. Liu into her home.
Ms. Liu said in 2019 that she had seldom left her apartment. Her psychiatrist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I always have a feeling that someone is watching me from outside,” she told The New York Times in 2019. “I want to be as inconspicuous as possible.”
Richard Liu is one of China’s most powerful men. The founder of JD.com, one of China’s flagship e-commerce companies, he is sometimes referred to as the Jeff Bezos of China.
He was a poster child of China’s market reforms, part of a generation of Chinese who became the country’s first billionaire class. Like many tech giants, Mr. Liu had a high public profile. In 2015, he married Zhang Zetian, a 21-year-old student and internet celebrity. By the summer of 2018, shortly before he met Ms. Liu, he had an estimated worth of $7.5 billion.
Following news of the allegations, the value of JD.com dropped almost $10 billion, nearly a third of its valuation. But Mr. Liu remains among the richest people in the world, with a net worth of $12 billion, according to Bloomberg’s billionaire index.
JD.com declined to comment.
In an online statement, Richard Liu apologized to his wife, emphasizing his gratitude: “I would like to especially thank my wife for her tolerance, support and company! Without her, I couldn’t have made it to this day.”
After the settlement announcement, the Chinese social media platform Weibo erupted. A hashtag about the news had garnered 34 million views as of Sunday evening.
Many rehashed an unsubstantiated claim about Ms. Liu’s motivations: that she had pursued legal actions for money. Others painted her as a seductress who had successfully reeled in a catch.
Feminist activists hailed the settlement as a landmark in China’s #MeToo movement. Though Mr. Liu did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the deal, many nevertheless interpreted it as an implicit admission of guilt.
“This is a victory for Jingyao,” said Feng Yuan, the head of Equality, a Beijing-based feminist advocacy group. “This seems to me like Richard Liu retracting his previous claim that the encounter was ‘consensual sex’ and therefore justified. With his resources, he could have easily continued to fight off the suit and prove his so-called ‘innocence.’”
For Zhou Xiaoxuan, better known by her pen name Xianzi, the settlement offers a glimmer of hope, albeit a qualified one given her own trials. Ms. Zhou joined the #MeToo movement in 2018, when she wrote an essay accusing a Chinese television host of sexual harassment. In September 2021, a Chinese court ruled against her on grounds of insufficient evidence.
“The outcome of this out-of-court settlement is the result of Jingyao’s persistence and innocence,” wrote Ms. Zhou on her personal WeChat account.
“We will not forget this case. We will not forget Jingyao’s dedication, but, more important, we will not forget that #Metoo still has a long way to go.”
Amy Qin contributed reporting.