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A rape allegation at China’s Alibaba spurs furor over sexual assault, binge drinking

Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang sent said in a memo on Aug. 9 that a male employee had been fired for having “overly intimate relations” with a colleague. (Video: Reuters)
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The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba made swift reprisals Monday following an allegation of rape that has sparked public furor over sexual misconduct and the heavy drinking culture prevalent in corporate China.

Over the weekend, a female employee at Alibaba wrote on the company’s internal communications platform that she had been groped by a male client and sexually assaulted by her boss during an alcohol-soaked business trip in July. She had tried raising the issue with company leaders, she said, and even went to the company cafeteria to publicly share her experience, but received little response. Her published account was widely circulated on Weibo, hitting the top of the trending charts.

By Monday, Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang had sent out an internal memo saying that a male employee had been fired for having “overly intimate relations” with a colleague. Two of the man’s supervisors had resigned, Zhang wrote, and the company’s chief human resources officer, Judy Tong — one of 13 senior leaders — had been given a demerit. The company would also be establishing new “anti-harassment” guidelines, rejecting “ugly” drinking culture and opening a new outlet for employees to anonymously report violations, Zhang said.

“Having something like this happen is the shame of everyone at Ali,” he concluded. “We must change.”

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The incident is the latest in a string of high-profile sexual misconduct cases that have roiled the Chinese public and boosted a fledgling #MeToo movement. In late July, Chinese Canadian pop star Kris Wu was detained amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted several young women. (Wu has denied the accusations.)

Beijing’s watchful censors have largely allowed people to discuss these incidents freely on social media, in part because the outrage has aligned with a broader campaign against the private-sector wealthy, advocates say. In November, regulators scuttled the stock debut of Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s Internet finance company Ant Group. In April, the government handed Alibaba a record $2.8 billion fine for antitrust violations.

“Alibaba Group has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct,” a spokesperson said Monday. “Ensuring a safe workplace for all our employees is Alibaba’s top priority.”

Women’s rights activists in China say they see the company’s relatively quick response to the allegations less as an act of justice and more as an attempt to dispel a public relations disaster at a time when the tech giant is being closely scrutinized by the government. Nonetheless, the activists say, the wave of outrage that seems to have forced the company’s hand reflects a civil society increasingly intolerant of sexual violence.

“Their ability to recognize that it’s a PR emergency is a good thing, it marks progress,” said Lu Pin, a veteran feminist activist. “Even if it’s a stunt, the message that it sends is very important.”

Sexual assault survivors have long been stigmatized in China, though since the #MeToo movement that swept the globe in 2017, more have been stepping forward with their stories. In recent years, a young intern, Zhou Xiaoxuan, captured national attention for suing a state television celebrity over alleged sexual harassment, demanding a public apology and damages. The host, Zhu Jun, denied wrongdoing. Court hearings in the landmark case, however, have been delayed multiple times, a sign of the challenges in seeking redress after going public.

“Women are becoming much more willing to speak up. That is the movement’s biggest achievement and what is different from before,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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The Alibaba employee, who is married, said that her night on July 27 started when she arrived at her business meeting and her boss told clients, “See how good I treat you all, I’ve brought you a beautiful woman.” She was pressured to drink despite protests and molested by a client when she was heavily intoxicated, she said. Her male supervisor witnessed this but did not intervene. When she woke up the next day in her hotel room, she couldn’t find her underwear and had vague memories of being frozen on her bed, feeling the pressure of someone on top of her, kissing and touching her. Police helped her review security footage, which showed her boss entering and exiting her room several times throughout the night, she said.

“Writing this up, I could no longer control myself and cried from the devastation,” the employee said. “It feels like a dream, like a terrifying, frightening, helpless nightmare.”

After her account went public, 6,000 Alibaba employees formed an internal group to express solidarity with her and demand action from the company. Using the trending Weibo hashtag related to the incident, women across the country shared experiences of hearing supervisors note their physical appearance at professional meetings, being groped by clients or having their career advancement tied to their willingness to entertain clients at alcohol-fueled events.

The employee’s account resonated with women because it was recognizable, Wang said. Being called a “beauty” and offered as a “gift” to clients, and strategizing how to navigate a macho drinking culture that penalizes those who turn down alcohol — these are rituals ingrained in Chinese business dealings. “Every woman can identify to a certain extent because every woman has had some experience,” Wang said.

The heavy drinking is an expectation even for men. In August last year, a male bank employee in Beijing was slapped across the face by his boss for declining a drink at a company dinner. In 2018, a man died after a company-sponsored bout of binge drinking.

Lu, the Chinese feminist, said that while a single incident isn’t going to unravel China’s toxic drinking culture or workplace sexism, it’s noteworthy that the country’s most successful tech company has had to take public stances against these practices.

“Now, women’s voices have become a difficulty for companies like Alibaba,” said Lu, who worked in China until 2015, when several of her colleagues were detained by the government while she was in the United States.

“Again and again,” she said, “I think we’ll see women can make emergencies for the establishment.”

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