A rape allegation at Alibaba has prompted an outpouring in China about toxic work culture

Alibaba has issues to address, not dismiss.
Alibaba has issues to address, not dismiss.
Image: REUTERS/Aly Song
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The #MeToo movement in China led to the arrest of one of the country’s biggest stars last month. Now it’s bringing a reckoning to the tech industry.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is facing a backlash after rape allegations made by a female employee were made public online. In an 11-page essay initially published on the company’s internal website, the employee said she was pushed to drink excessively by her male supervisor during a client event in late July, and was groped by the client, and then later assaulted by her boss. The unidentified employee, who works in the company’s fresh food delivery service, said senior managers to whom she reported the incident on Aug. 2 didn’t take any action.

On Monday (Aug. 9), Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang said the firm had fired the supervisor, who admitted to “intimate acts” with the woman while she was inebriated, according to a company memo. Two senior managers of the company also resigned, while its chief people officer was given a warning for failing to respond to the employee’s accusations in a timely manner. “Alibaba Group has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct, and ensuring a safe workplace for all our employees is Alibaba’s top priority,” said a company spokesperson. Meanwhile, police have also opened an investigation.

The Alibaba incident adds fuel to China’s latest #MeToo moment that started last month, when Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu faced sexual assault allegations from a young woman, prompting several international brands to cut ties with him. Wu was detained by Beijing police on suspicion of rape late last month.

The allegation at Alibaba has prompted a discussion of entrenched sexism at China’s most admired companies, a problem Zhang acknowledged in a companywide memo to Aliren, an internal term for its employees:

Aliren, this weekend will remain in our memories forever. In the middle of the night, there was an outpouring of emotions on our intranet. Behind everyone’s deep concern about the incident was not just sympathy and care for the traumatized colleague but also tremendous sadness for the challenges in Alibaba’s culture. The pain comes from love. This incident is shameful for all Aliren. We must rebuild, and we must change. Change is only possible if everyone takes individual action, but it must start at the top. It starts with me. Please wait and watch.

Toxic sexism at China’s tech giants

In online discussions, many users zeroed in on the Alibaba employee’s description of an alleged joke the supervisor had made at the client event, about having brought a “beauty” to the gathering, saying it demonstrated how the tech industry continues to regard women as sexual resources. As recently as 2015, Chinese tech firms hired female “motivators” to boost morale among largely male programmers.

In another disturbing incident, footage from 2017 showed some female employees of Tencent using their teeth to open a bottle placed between the legs of male colleagues in a game at a New Year’s Eve party. Tencent apologized after the video went viral online, and vowed to adopt stricter scrutiny of its events.

Even in 2018, a report from Human Rights Watch pointed to discriminatory job ads from Chinese tech firms including Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent that promised candidates that they could work with”beautiful girls” and “goddesses.” The tech firms apologized for the ads and promised to review ads more carefully going forward.

And last year, Airbnb launched an investigation after female employees in China complained to US management about alleged misconduct by a senior leader, including allegedly scoring female employees on their looks.

Many internet users particularly slammed corporate drinking culture, which routinely leads to senior employees or clients pushing younger or female workers to drink when signing contracts or as a show of respect.

“No matter whether the police investigation will bring any twists to the Alibaba case, China’s filthy drinking culture has existed for over a decade. Hope the criticism of it this time will bring some change,” wrote a blogger on Weibo.

The subtle impact of #MeToo in China

Ever since the #MeToo movement began globally, women in China also spoke out about their experiences of sexual harassment at school or at work. In a landmark move, China made it recently possible for women to bring civil sexual harassment complaints, and earlier this year a plaintiff won one of the first such civil suits against a colleague. At the same time discussions of #MeToo have been censored, and women who have shared experiences of sexual harassment have faced defamation complaints.

Yet recent months suggest that feminist views may be having some impact.

In 2018, when a young Chinese woman studying in the US made a rape allegation against mogul Richard Liu, the CEO of Chinese e-commerce giant, she was initially “slut-shamed” by many online, wrote New York Times columnist Li Yuan in 2019. Liu maintained the interaction was consensual and prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to charge him. A civil suit against Liu is continuing.

While there are many factors shaping online conversations in China, when allegations surfaced about pop star Wu, and at Alibaba, commentators more uniformly expressed support for the women making their complaints public.

Meanwhile, some tech firms that have been at the center of sexist incidents previously say they have taken steps to improve internal culture.

“We do not tolerate harassment of any kind, including sexual harassment. We have long-established channels for employees to share their concerns or experiences in strict confidence, and would not hesitate to refer any serious cases to law enforcement,” said Tencent in response to a query from Quartz on its sexual harassment policies. The company has included sexual harassment as one of the actions that breach its “high-voltage line,” a set of internal standards, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Alibaba’s next steps

In a widely-circulated open letter, which was published before Zhang issued his memo, around 6,000 Alibaba employees urged the firm to establish a team to review sexual assault cases, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Zhang promised to set up a reporting channel for employees who feel their rights have been violated, and carry out companywide training regarding employee rights, including around sexual harassment. He also said the firm is “staunchly opposed to the ugly forced drinking culture,” and that employees are empowered to reject drinking requests, whether they are from customers or supervisors.

However, Zhang’s pledge to “expedite the formation of an anti-sexual harassment policy to create a safe workplace for our employees that has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct” struck some as overdue. Alibaba didn’t immediately reply to a Quartz query about the policies it already has in place for preventing and reporting sexual misconduct and harassment.

“I’m a bit surprised that the company didn’t have anti-sexual harassment policies till now, that should have been the default for companies,” wrote Zhang Yiyu, a prominent psychologist, on Weibo. “I hope this incident will prompt more companies to make clear policies in this aspect, to protect their employees from sexual offenses.”