Alibaba #MeToo Case Shines Light On Toxic Corporate Cultures

Tech companies’ toxic cultures are the latest focus of China’s resurgent #MeToo movement. In an essay posted on internal Alibaba message boards and later leaked to the public, a female employee alleged that a client assaulted her and her manager raped her after she was compelled to binge drink at a work dinner. The resulting wave of criticism targeted China’s patriarchal corporate world—in which drinking to excess and demeaning women as eye candy is common—as an incubator for “rape culture.” At NPR, Emily Feng reported that the woman’s earlier attempts to report her assault were silenced by Alibaba:

Back at work, the woman says her manager pretended nothing had happened. The woman approached two other managers to report the incident, but they refused to fire the alleged perpetrator. She alleges that one manager told her: “Our work is very important. Why should such a small incident derail something so important?” Both have since resigned.

[…] The woman says she attempted to share her story in work chat groups, but her messages were quickly deleted. Frustrated, she brought a loudspeaker to the Alibaba canteen, hoping to broadcast her allegations to other employees – only to be quickly surrounded by dozens of office security guards. Furious, she began writing an essay describing her experience that has now gone viral.

“I have been calm for too long,” the woman wrote. “I trusted all of you, but what have you done for me?” [Source]

At The Wall Street Journal, Chao Deng and Keith Zhai reported on the response to the allegations within Alibaba and across China:

In an open letter to management on Sunday, more than 6,000 Alibaba employees asked the company to set up a dedicated team to review sexual-assault cases and a hotline for employees to report such issues, according to a copy of the letter seen by the Journal.

[…] An explosion of anger filled comment sections on Weibo over the weekend, with people lamenting both the alleged assault and its handling by Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce company. A hashtag referring to the woman’s allegations topped Weibo’s trending list on Sunday morning, with related posts attracting more than half a billion views.

“When you discover one cockroach in the room, there will already be a whole bunch of others,” one Weibo user wrote in a comment that garnered tens of thousands of likes. [Source]

The toxic sexual cultures of China’s leading technology companies have long been an open secret. Internet users circulated a 2017 GQ story illustrated with images of naked women bathing in broth that asked, “Can a banquet without girls still be called a meal?” It went on, “No matter how much meat is on the menu, a banquet without women is a ‘vegetarian affair.'” In 2018, JD.com CEO Richard Liu was arrested for criminal sexual misconduct in Minnesota after a young woman alleged he raped her after an alcohol-fueled banquet. Criminal charges were later dropped but a civil suit is ongoing. Alibaba itself has been infamous for institutionalized gender discrimination. At The New York Times, Li Yuan wrote that while the Alibaba case may be an industry-wide wake-up call, unhealthy or even criminal habits may prove difficult to change:

Not so long ago, Chinese tech companies invited popular Japanese porn stars to their events to drum up publicity. Qihoo 360, a cybersecurity company, invited a Japanese porn star to dance with its programmers in 2014, while some of its female employees wore revealing outfits.

[…] Even punishments at tech companies can be sexual in nature. Mr. Cheng has said he punished one male executive by ordering the executive to “run naked.” A former Didi executive explained that others, too, were similarly told to run around the company campus in its early years, though men were allowed to wear their underwear and women could wear paper clothes over their undergarments.

[…] A widely circulated video showed that Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire founder, made a sex joke when he was hosting a group wedding ceremony — an annual event for the company that typically draws headlines — for his employees in 2019. “In work, we want the 996 spirit,” he said, referring to the punishing work schedule of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. “In life, we want 669,” he said. “Six days, six times. The key is long-lasting.” [Source]

After her essay went viral, Alibaba fired the woman’s manager, adding that he “will never be rehired.” Police have arrested both the client and the manager for “forcible molestation” but, to the consternation of many following the case, claim the woman was not raped or forced to drink. The victim still faces an uphill battle in court. “It’s hard for many victims to win a sexual assault case in court,” Li Ying, a lawyer and director of the Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, wrote in an opinion piece for state media platform China Daily. “Besides, even the victims that win a sexual harassment case may not see the perpetrator receiving appropriate punishment.”

In response to the uproar, Alibaba began writing an internal sexual harassment policy. The step was mandated months ago by the passage of China’s new civil code but Alibaba, along with a number of other companies, had ignored the largely toothless policy. “If a regulation has neither mechanisms for punishment nor incentives, how can it be implemented?” Professor Shen Yifei, a scholar at Fudan University’s School of Social Development and Public Policy, asked The Diplomat. At The Washington Post, Rebecca Tan and Pei Lin Wu relayed feminist activist Lu Pin’s skepticism about Alibaba’s new embrace of sexual harassment policies:

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.”

[…] “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.” [Source]

The Alibaba case follows closely on the heels of the arrest of Chinese-Canadian mega-star Kris Wu after a woman accused him of raping her when she was 17 years old. Authorities have moved to frame Wu’s case as a byproduct of “chaos” in China’s entertainment industry rather than as part of a grassroots #MeToo movement intent on holding abusers accountable. China’s media regulator announced that it would launch a crackdown on variety shows that cultivate “star worship.” People’s Daily ordered the entertainment industry to “dig out its sores and cut off its carbuncles,” and all of Wu’s works were scrubbed from the Chinese internet. At Vice News, Viola Zhou reported on the Chinese government’s effort to downplay the grassroots movement that brought Wu down:

Instead, it has sought to turn Wu’s detention into a case about the moral decadence of pop stars. And by portraying itself as a government acting in the public interest, it is also trying to legitimize its arbitrary and opaque use of state power. This attempt to rewrite the narrative, critics say, could derail efforts to address a pervasive rape culture in the country.

[…] But when authorities shift the focus to the entertainment industry, [Zheng Xi, a Chinese activist] said, they are making it harder for victims to build connections with each other, and reducing public discussions on similar sexual abuse incidents in the wider society.

[…] “If the focus is placed on women helping themselves, it would be acknowledging and encouraging the resisting forces in the society,” [Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong] said. “This time, they target Kris Wu. Who knows whom they will target next time? The state would not want to encourage this.” [Source]

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