More than two years ago, He Qian, a former journalist in China, came forward with accusations of sexual assault against a well-known reporter. Her story circulated widely on the internet, helping give force to China’s burgeoning #MeToo movement.
Now Ms. He, 32, is being punished for it. A Chinese court ruled this week that she had violated defamation laws by publicizing her accusations.
She and a friend, Zou Sicong, who helped her share her story online, were ordered to pay more than $1,800 in legal fees and damages to the man whom Ms. He accused of assault, Deng Fei, a journalist at a Chinese magazine. Mr. Deng has denied the accusations.
“Chinese law needs to do more to respond to #MeToo,” Ms. He, who also uses the first name Belinda, said in an interview. “This is only the beginning and far from enough.”
Ms. He’s case has been a closely watched test of the Chinese government’s tolerance for the country’s small but spirited #MeToo movement. The decision by the court, in the eastern city of Hangzhou, highlights the challenges for women in China who come forward with accusations of sexual harassment and assault against prominent men.
#MeToo has gained traction in China in recent years, despite the governing Communist Party’s strict limits on activism and dissent and its tight control of the internet. A number of prominent men at Chinese companies, religious institutions and universities have been forced to resign after women spoke out about harassment and abuse.
But many obstacles remain. Rape and sexual harassment are often considered taboo subjects in China. The authorities often discourage women from filing complaints. And in recent years men accused of harassment have sued their accusers for defamation, in what critics say is an effort to intimidate and silence them.
In her article, which circulated online in China after Mr. Zou published it on his social media account, Ms. He wrote about her time in 2009 as a 21-year-old intern at Phoenix Weekly, a Chinese magazine, where 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 court in Hangzhou sided with Mr. Deng, saying that Ms. He and Mr. Zou had not provided enough evidence of the alleged assault. “What they described lacks 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 such a bad and stupid thing,” he wrote of Ms. He’s accusations in a recent social media post. He said he could not recall meeting her.
Mr. Zou said Chinese law should be more responsive to women who bring forward allegations of assault and harassment.
“Hoping a topic will just disappear and return to the old world is ignorant and peremptory,” he wrote on WeChat, a popular social media app. “I will take responsibility until the end for publishing the article about He Qian.”
For activists eager to protect the rights of women and push back against China’s patriarchal culture, the decision was a setback.
Feng Yuan, a co-founder of a women’s rights nonprofit group in Beijing, said the court had “completely denied the existence of sexual harassment.”
“Many people will feel even more powerless in the face of sexual harassment,” Ms. Feng said.
Despite the government’s efforts to limit activism, the #MeToo movement in China has had some success and continues to enjoy support among women from a variety of backgrounds.
A court in Beijing last month heard the case of Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former intern at China’s state broadcaster who accused a prominent television personality, Zhu Jun, of sexual assault. (Mr. Zhu has denied the accusations.) Dozens of people gathered outside, some holding signs with the #MeToo hashtag, in a show of support that is rare at Chinese court proceedings.
Despite the court’s decision, Ms. He said she would continue to press her case. She said she was encouraged that her case had prompted some discussion of women’s rights in China.
“The worst-case scenario,” she said, “would be if no one discussed or paid attention to this topic and no one dared stand up.”
Albee Zhang contributed research.