BEIJING: The personal life of JD.com chief Richard Liu returned to the spotlight of China's social media on Wednesday, drawing 360 million views to briefly become the top trending item on the Twitter-like Weibo, after a civil lawsuit accused him of rape.
Liu, who was briefly arrested after a University of Minnesota student accused him of rape last August, maintained his innocence throughout the investigation, which ended in December, with prosecutors declining to press charges.
The civil case brought by the student comes as the e-commerce giant faces a backlash over layoffs and its work culture after Liu railed against "slackers", with his social media backing seeming to wane, in contrast to its support after his initial arrest and release.
"Now it's coming to light how hard he's working people and they're trying to cut staff ... Suddenly the sympathy can evaporate pretty quickly," said Mark Natkin, a managing director at Beijing-based tech consultancy Marbridge Consulting.
Earlier, people had been more willing to commiserate when the business appeared to be going well and employees were being treated well, he added.
Liu's accuser, identified in the civil lawsuit for the first time as Liu Jingyao, a Chinese student at the U.S. university, has sought undisclosed damages in a Minneapolis court from both Liu and JD.com.
In a statement on Tuesday, Liu's attorney, Jill Brisbois, said, "Based on the Hennepin county attorney's declination to charge a case against our client and our belief in his innocence, we feel strongly that this suit is without merit and will vigorously defend against it."
She was referring to prosecutors who declined to charge Liu after last year's investigation.
A lawyer for JD.com, Peter Walsh of Hogan Lovells, said it would defend the company against the claims, which he described as "meritless".
On Wednesday, some of the highest-trending Weibo comments on the new case contrasted the accusations with Liu's recent comments that the number of "slackers" in his firm had grown.
"How did he find the time to commit such bad crimes in Minnesota when he was working 996 hours?" said a Weibo user, whose posting received more than 1,200 likes.
The reference is to a practice in the Chinese tech industry of working 72-hour weeks, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on six days, which has figured in online debate and protests on some coding platforms.
A JD.com spokesman has declined to comment on layoffs but said the company was making adjustments as a normal part of business.
Another user joked that Liu himself was the company's "least cost-effective" employee, with the arrest wiping out billions of dollars in shareholder value.
Shares of JD.com are still down 4.5 percent from the period before Liu was arrested. That is despite a slight rise this year following last year's fall of about 16 percent, for a loss of more than US$7 billion in value in the week after his arrest.
"At that time it felt obvious to me that the woman sought to make some money from the situation," said Gao Wei, a student in the Chinese capital, whose posts defending Liu on messaging app WeChat after his initial arrest drew hundreds of likes.
"I think there is a better understanding of Liu's character now because of the 996 ... even though these are not directly related issues," Gao, 22, told Reuters.
(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Additional Reporting by Beijing and Shanghai Newsrooms; Editing by Tony Munroe and Clarence Fernandez)