China

Alibaba's rape allegation is a milestone in China’s #MeToo movement

A scandal brings toxic business drinking culture to the forefront.

Two men pictured in an Alibaba company parking lot

Alibaba needs to tread carefully, as its handling of the rape allegations is under close scrutiny from angry employees as well as the public.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This story contains mention of and details regarding sexual assault.

The top management at Chinese tech giant Alibaba needed only the weekend to fire employees and executives involved in a rape allegation after the scandal swiftly moved from an internal cry for justice into international headlines.

The alleged sexual assault, news of which erupted on China's web on Saturday, has compelled the global ecommerce behemoth's chairman and CEO, Daniel Zhang, to promise on Monday his company would establish an anti-sexual harassment policy with "zero tolerance for sexual misconduct." China's feminist activists see this rare move for a Chinese company and the intense uproar the Alibaba case has provoked as a sign of a potential breakthrough in the country's beleaguered #MeToo movement.

Zhang's announcement came a week after a female employee at Alibaba first reported to company executives and human resources that her manager had raped her during a business trip. On Saturday, Aug. 7, the employee published on Alibaba's internal BBS an 11-page post with harrowing, detailed accusations. The employee wrote that she was forced to go on a work trip to Jinan, the capital city of Shandong province, which her male manager, Wang Chengwen, described at a work dinner as "sending a pretty lady" to clients. During the alcohol-drenched dinner, the employee wrote, a male client groped her multiple times while Wang watched. She wrote that later that same evening, July 27, Wang raped her while she was unconscious in her hotel room.

The woman said she had reported the incident to local police in Jinan on July 28, and was able to watch the hotel's CCTV footage, which showed Wang entering her room four times the night before. She said she reported the incident to Alibaba on Aug. 2, to no avail. On Aug. 7, after what she described as multiple failed attempts to communicate with Alibaba executives and HR and request Wang's ouster failed, she made the incident public.

The story exploded on Alibaba's internal BBS on Aug. 7, with many employees criticizing what they described as the company's indifference to the incident and organizing to help the woman. Intense internal discussion quickly spilled over to social media, which then sparked nationwide outrage, with the Alibaba worker's rape allegation and its aftermath topping Weibo's trending topic chart last weekend. Even a populist WeChat blog under the Communist Party's mouthpiece People's Daily chimed in to condemn Alibaba, writing, "Don't even think about manipulating everything like a Korean chaebol. This is China."

Alibaba's response to the sexual assault report stands in stark contrast to its earlier treatment of five employees who wrote scripts to stockpile discounted mooncakes in an internal sales event in 2016; the company fired those employees the same day it discovered their activity. On Sunday, Aug. 8, a petition reportedly signed by 6,000 Alibaba employees circulated widely on Chinese social media, demanding the company launch a public investigation into the incident and form a mechanism to address future workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Under enormous internal and public pressure, Zhang announced Monday that Alibaba would fire the accused perpetrator, Wang. Zhang also said two senior managers had resigned following their inaction after the female employee reported the incident.

This episode, which occurred merely a week after the A-List Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu was arrested on suspicion of rape, marked the latest development in the #MeToo movement in China, with hundreds of thousands of web users — female and male — calling for an end to the toxic business drinking culture and workplace sexual harassment all too common across China.

The numbers back up those complaints. A 2018 survey conducted by a grassroots group called 074 Legal Hotline for Professional Women showed nearly 70% of the 233 workers surveyed in major Chinese cities had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Though various laws contain provisions that prohibit workplace sexual harassment — for example, China's constitution enshrines gender equality — the rules are generally abstract and lack teeth. This has made addressing gender discrimination at work a grave challenge for women. Given that even major companies like Alibaba currently don't have mechanisms addressing workplace sexual harassment or assault, taking to social media has proven the most effective way for victims to seek justice.

The Alibaba rape allegation is China's most high-profile case regarding workplace sexual assault in recent years. The $530 billion ecommerce giant is facing a fraught moment: It's at the center of Beijing's serious antitrust crackdown, while its handling of the recent accusations is under close scrutiny from not only its 250,000 employees but the general public. Observers are by now keenly aware of gender inequality and workers' rights after a #MeToo movement has swept across China, even if that movement has faced frequent headwinds from government censors, internet platforms and online nationalists.

Feminist activists and researchers believe the Alibaba rape allegation could mark the beginning of the end of China's toxic business drinking culture, where the more powerful participants, often men, take frequent pleasure in forcing less powerful participants, often women, into drinking to excess.

"The Alibaba rape allegation is significant because it has forced one of China's most powerful tech giants to publicly address workplace sexual harassment," Lü Pin, a veteran feminist activist and organizer, told Protocol. "Even though it might just be a gesture, ... the gesture is meaningful in that it pushes the public to challenge the binge-drinking practice that have been normalized in a patriarchal culture, which in essence is a form of sexual harassment."

A deep-seated culture of misogyny

Current and former Alibaba employees, as well as researchers who have close contact with the company's culture, are not surprised by the sexual assault scandal; Alibaba has developed a reputation in the tech industry for having a misogynist culture.

In 2015, Alibaba posted job ads hiring "programmer motivators" who "must be attractive." Required tasks included waking up programmers every day and organizing morning meetings. A female Alibaba employee told Protocol that off-color conversations are omnipresent at team meetings and private events. She has met male managers who treat younger female colleagues like personal assistants, and she said a male manager sexually harassed her verbally at a work-related event. A researcher who has talked to dozens of Alibaba employees and attended many Alibaba events over the past 10 years told Protocol that "sexual innuendo is very common, especially at sales events where clients are present."

Alibaba is also known for organizing "ice-breaking" orientation events that often involve risqué games that have made many women feel violated. Chatter about the company's hazing rituals once again trended on social media following the rape scandal. Alibaba denied the existence of such programming.

"Alibaba Group has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct, and ensuring a safe workplace for all our employees is Alibaba's top priority," an Alibaba spokesperson said in an emailed comment to Protocol.

Workplace sexism and sexual harassment are widespread across China's tech industry, one that continues to look up to Silicon Valley, itself hardly a role model for gender equality. Several female tech workers in China have told Protocol that it's common for their managers — male and female — to deliberately assign young women to work with clients as well as teams within their respective companies, the same way the alleged assault victim was "sent" by her manager.

Alibaba's scandal has brought a very specific issue that's omnipresent in China into focus — binge drinking at business occasions.

"A movement against workplace sexual harassment needs a carrier for fermentation," Lü said. "And the deep-rooted business drinking culture is such a carrier, which many people loathe, including men."

Lü believes abolishing the drinking culture is more meaningful than vague talk about workplace equity, and perhaps even more impactful than policies against harassment.

"If people won't be forced into drinking at business events in the future, it'll be a huge victory for this movement," Lü said. "This is just the beginning."

If you or a loved one needs help:

Call RAINN's sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-4673, 24 hours a day.

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