The Phoenix TV bureau in Washington, DC.
One of China's largest and most prominent media companies—12 percent of which is owned by a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox—has been rocked by a major sexual harassment and assault scandal. A lawsuit filed on July 19 in federal court against Phoenix Satellite Television contains a series of jaw-dropping allegations concerning its onetime Washington, DC, bureau chief, Zhengzhu Liu. The Chinese journalist is accused of a litany of offenses, including encouraging job applicants to meet him in hotel rooms for interviews and then groping them, attempting to coerce the wife of a cameraman to have sex with him to preserve her husband's job, telling a job candidate about the "gigantic and powerful penis" of his black friend, and attempting to rape a reporter.
The plaintiffs, two of whom are US citizens, claim at least one high-ranking Phoenix executive knew about this conduct for years before the company fired Liu last December. They also say that after Phoenix ousted Liu, the media conglomerate installed a new bureau chief who proceeded to retaliate against employees who had complained about the alleged abuses.
Four of the five plaintiffs—Meixing Ren, Ching-Yi Chang, Taofeng Wang, and Haipei Shue—are men who say that Tao Lu, the current bureau chief, punished them for speaking out about his predecessor's alleged conduct by downsizing their job duties and firing one of them. The fifth plaintiff is a former Phoenix intern who alleges that Liu repeatedly groped her. Another former Phoenix intern filed a separate lawsuit in New York earlier this year making similar allegations. Mother Jones interviewed three of the male plaintiffs and four of Liu's alleged female victims.
Phoenix Television, which is based in Hong Kong, is one of few private broadcasters permitted by the Chinese government to operate in mainland China. The multimedia empire maintains bureaus around the world, covers more than 150 countries, and is worth about $1.9 billion. In 2008, the company's current CEO, Liu Changle, won an International Emmy for being "one of Asia's leading broadcast entrepreneurs."
The lawsuit is "full of inaccuracies and false statements about the Company," Wu Xiaoyong, the CEO of Phoenix's American subsidiary, told Mother Jones in a statement. "We have retained counsel to defend the Company's interests, and we will have no further comment regarding this case." Mother Jones left messages at several phone numbers associated with Liu; he did not respond to these repeated requests for comment. Both Xiaoyong and the law firm representing the plaintiffs said they do not know the ex-bureau chief's whereabouts. Murdoch's 21st Century Fox declined to comment.
Lu, the new Phoenix bureau chief, told Mother Jones that he would not comment on any of the allegations, but he said that "some media organizations made or are making sensational and irresponsible coverage on the case without proper investigation... We believe such practice is not only irresponsible [and] ill-intentioned but also involves potential consequence of defamation."
The Chinese government, which regularly censors press reports and Internet content, appears to be blocking Chinese citizens from reading about the allegations. China's biggest state-run news station, CCTV, has ignored the story. Xinhua, another major state-run network, published a story about the scandal on Tuesday night that vanished hours later. (Xinhua did not respond to a request for comment.)
A secret video
Central to the case is a video that the plaintiffs claim was secretly recorded last August on an iPhone by Anne, a female Phoenix reporter. (The alleged victims requested they be referred to by American pseudonyms.) The video, reviewed by Mother Jones, shows an exchange in Mandarin between a man and a woman whose faces are not visible. The complaint identifies the pair as Anne and Zhengzhu Liu, the ex-bureau chief. "You are doing well now," the man says. "You look pretty good, that's it...let me hug you." The video shows the woman's legs moving towards the door. But the man continues: "Don't move, don't move, I like you so much...No, no one will come in...Let me have a look; let me 'kao' [fuck] you." The woman quickly exits the room. The music for Phoenix's morning broadcast can be heard playing in the background.
In September, Anne filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), requesting an investigation into her allegations. Five of Anne's coworkers—including the four male plaintiffs in the lawsuit—informed the EEOC they would serve as witnesses in any potential inquiry. Soon after, Anne settled with Phoenix for an undisclosed amount, according to Bernabei & Wachtel, the Washington, DC-based law firm representing the plaintiffs. Xiaoyong, the CEO of Phoenix's American subsidiary, told Mother Jones that Anne "withdrew her charges voluntarily" and continues to work for the company. Phoenix declined to make Anne available for comment.
Plaintiffs allege a history of harassment
But Liu's sexual harassment allegedly started long before Anne filmed her video.
Jane, who worked as a reporter in Phoenix's DC bureau in 2006 while completing a master's thesis, was one of Liu's first alleged victims, according to the complaint. "To this day, my body feels so tense when I think about it. I want to forget about everything that happened with my whole body and my whole mind," she told Mother Jones.
"Don't move, don't move, I like you so much...no, no one will come in...Let me have a look. Let me fuck you," says the man on the video, who the plaintiffs identified as Liu.
During her first week on the job, Jane said, she accepted a ride from Liu to a work event at the Chinese embassy. During the drive, she said, Liu told her a disturbing story about a rape victim, going so far as to detail the positions the victim was in when she was assaulted. Jane said Liu then attempted to fondle her legs and breasts. The alleged harassment escalated in the weeks to come, she said. "He would call me in and say that he could no longer type Chinese from his keyboard, and then he would touch my breasts," Jane claimed. Toward the end of 2006, Liu unexpectedly showed up at her apartment when her fiancé wasn't home, forced his way through the door, and unzipped his pants, the EEOC complaint alleges; he only stopped when she was able to make a racket, spooking him.
"I was just a student, I didn't know anyone in DC," Jane said. "I didn't want to talk to my parents, I could have talked to my fiancé, but I was so afraid. [Liu] made it clear that he was the one in charge, and I didn't want to get fired."
Mother Jones spoke with three other women who say they were assaulted by Liu. Mary interned at Phoenix's New York office in late 2009 and early 2010, when she was a journalism student at Syracuse University. During her internship, Liu visited the New York office, which he also oversaw; Mary said he asked to discuss her job performance at the Hilton Hotel in midtown where he was staying. After she arrived, Mary alleges, Liu forced himself on her and attempted to kiss her. She fled the hotel room. "I often blamed myself for being so stupid—after all the unease I still followed him to his hotel room," Mary said.
After graduating from Syracuse in 2010, Mary tried to get a full-time job with the company. "In my mind, Phoenix was still a very reputable media outlet," she said. "I thought I could handle working with him, as long as we were not in the same bureau. I even remembered a friend telling me that there were bosses like this everywhere, but you can't pass on a great job opportunity just because of it." After Mary inquired about a job, she said Liu invited her to accompany him to Atlantic City to discuss a position with the company. She declined—"I knew what he was really asking," she said—after which Liu allegedly told her there were no more US work visas available.
Two other women—job applicants who each claim they were interviewed by Liu in hotel rooms—provided Mother Jones with accounts that echoed Mary's allegations. Both said they believed that in order to obtain employment with the company, they had to submit to Liu's sexual advances. "Liu asked me to bring my tripod to his hotel room, to see if I was good on camera. Then he grabbed me and tried to kiss me," said Allyson, who Liu interviewed in August 2012. "I was terrified...People should be able to pursue their dreams without fear." Another woman, whose husband still works for Phoenix, was interviewed for a job in 2006 by Liu. She alleged that Liu invited her to the Waldorf Hotel to discuss job opportunities at Phoenix, and then forced her to get into the elevator and accompany him to his hotel room. He allegedly pushed her down on the bed and began playing with his penis in front of her.
"Our friends back in China say that we're crazy for pursuing a case like this, against such a big, powerful corporation."
"I was very afraid he was going to retaliate against my husband, and even prevent him from getting a job at another Chinese media company," she told Mother Jones. "Mr. Liu had a very powerful influence."
The plaintiffs claim that at least one Phoenix executive knew of the complaints against Liu for years and did nothing. Liu was ultimately fired by the company in December 2012. According to the complaint, Taofeng Wang, one of the male plaintiffs, told a Los Angeles Phoenix executive, Zeng Shiping, about Liu's misconduct in 2009. Zeng declined to comment, but according to the lawsuit, she told Wang that "the company would not do anything to stop Mr. Liu."
Allegations of a retaliation campaign
The plaintiffs say that after Anne settled with Phoenix in the fall of 2012, Liu, in what would be his final months as bureau chief, began to retaliate against Phoenix employees who had agreed to serve as witnesses for her EEOC complaint. According to the lawsuit, Liu reduced their job duties, cut their overtime, and fired one of the male plaintiffs, Haipei Shue, an on-air commentator. His alleged retaliation campaign only came to an end when Phoenix dismissed him. "We fired Mr. Liu because his behavior was contrary to company regulations and code of conduct," Xiaoyong, the CEO of Phoenix's American subsidiary, told Mother Jones. "This decision was based on comprehensive investigation rather than the alleged existence of [Anne's] video recording."
But the plaintiffs say that Tao Lu, who replaced Liu as bureau chief, continued the retaliation. Lu fired Meixing Ren, one of the plaintiffs, on July 18, according to the lawsuit. Ren had worked as a broadcast engineer in the DC office since April 2011, and he had signed Anne's EEOC complaint.
Lu said that Phoenix is not commenting on the specific allegations in the case because it wants "to refrain from interfering in anyway the judicial justice" and the company "firmly believes in the justice of the judicial system of this country."
One of the plaintiffs, who asked to speak anonymously because he fears that talking to the press will cause Chinese companies to blacklist him as a "corporate troublemaker," said, "if this has happened in China, the sexual harassment victims will most probably get little or no serious attention from either the company or the legal system." He added, "Our friends back in China say that we're crazy for pursuing a case like this, against such a big, powerful corporation. But then they say, 'Oh right, you're in America. Well, maybe you have a small chance.'"