Once fêted at home and abroad as an emblem of China’s rising power, Alibaba has fallen on hard times. Spin-off Ant Group’s IPO was blocked at the eleventh hour by Xi Jinping’s personal fiat. Founder Jack Ma has all but disappeared from public view. Officials in Zhejiang, the province in which Alibaba’s headquarters is located, are under investigation for their ties to the company. State-owned enterprises are reportedly acquiring stakes in key portfolio businesses. A rape case has exposed Ali’s sordid corporate culture.
In August, a female Alibaba employee alleged on an internal message board that her manager raped her after compelling her to binge drink during a client dinner, and that higher-ups took action to cover up the incident. The manager was eventually fired, and he and the client are both under criminal investigation for “forcible indecency,” a lesser charge than rape. However, Alibaba has now fired 10 employees for leaking the scandal to the general public. At Bloomberg, Coco Liu and Zheping Huang broke the news:
Alibaba announced internally last week it fired the group for sharing a harrowing account posted on an internal forum by a colleague surnamed Zhou, who accused a former manager of rape. Their offenses include sharing screenshots of the woman’s post in the public domain after removing watermarks that bore their IDs, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing an internal matter. Another three people have been reprimanded for making inappropriate comments in public forums, they added.
[…] But Alibaba had little choice but to fire the 10 employees in question because they violated very strict policies against exposing content carried on employee forums, the people said. The internal platform — which is open to Alibaba’s 250,000 employees as well as many at fintech giant Ant Group Co. — is considered off-limits and the company has fired others for leaking information in the past, they added. Alibaba representatives didn’t immediately respond to a written request for comment.
[…] Alibaba made its decision to fire the 10 workers after wrapping up an internal investigation in past weeks, other people familiar with the matter said. It hasn’t announced the final results of that probe to the public, they said. [Source]
“There was no way you could complain about this; this was a tradition at Ali,” Ms. Qian said. “If you complain, people will think you’re the one with the problem.” @suilee & @zhonggg on the misogynistic work culture at China’s tech giant. https://t.co/k1WIz4TECw
— Dr. Leta Hong Fincher 洪理达 (@LetaHong) September 2, 2021
The #MeToo movement has been all but banned in China, so an internal campaign to address sexual violence and misogyny has been framed as a move to fix corporate culture. At The New York Times, Sui-Lee Wee and Raymond Zhong provided details on the sexist culture of a company that once bragged about its gender parity (in 2018, Jack Ma claimed that 49% of his workforce were women):
Many Alibaba departments use games and other ice-breaking activities to make co-workers feel at ease with one another. Kiki Qian joined the company in 2017. Her team welcomed her with a game of charades. When she lost, she said, she was punished by being made to “fly the plane,” as her co-workers called it. The stunt involved straddling a male colleague as he sat in an office chair. The colleague then lay back in the chair, causing Ms. Qian to fall on top of him, face first.
[…] Other former Alibaba employees said ice-breaking rituals included uncomfortable questions about their sexual histories. One former employee said she and other women at a team dinner had been asked to rank their male colleagues by attractiveness. Another said she had felt humiliated during a game in which employees were required to touch each other on the shoulders, back and thighs.
[…] Alibaba also gives employees a handbook of morale-boosting “Alibaba slang.” Several entries are laced with sexual innuendo. One urges employees to be “fierce and able to last a long time.” [Source]
Entertainers associated with Alibaba have also been targeted as part of a government effort to “clean up” celebrity culture. A recent screed on “sissy-boy” culture and societal collapse republished by China’s main Party and state mouthpieces, People’s Daily and Xinhua, celebrated a fine leveled against Alibaba and the banning and deplatforming of Zhao Wei and Gao Xiaosong, both of whom have been closely connected to the company.
As Alibaba’s corporate culture has come under public scrutiny, so have its business practices come under Party scrutiny. Now, amidst a centrally mandated push for “common prosperity,” Alibaba has found itself under even more pressure, particularly since its Hangzhou headquarters are located in Zhejiang Province, a pilot zone for the common prosperity program. China’s wealth distribution is grossly unequal: its Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is unusually high at 0.465, and the wealthiest 1% currently own 30.6% of the country’s wealth. The Party expects private companies to donate some profits to remedy the gap. Earlier this week, Alibaba announced it would invest 100 billion yuan [$15.5 billion] towards common prosperity goals, and also establish a 20-billion-yuan “common prosperity development fund.” Such investments and donations may be less altruistic than they first appear. A 2020 study showed that companies are apt to be more charitable when their industry becomes the target of anti-corruption investigators. Almost all of China’s corporate giants are participating in the giveaways: Pinduoduo pledged 10 billion yuan [$1.54 billion] and the CEO of Meituan claimed that common prosperity is “built into the genes of Meituan” (the company is facing punishment for anticompetitive practices).
$BABA confirms to @CNBC @AlibabaGroup will invest RMB100bln ($15.5bln) into 10 key initiatives promoting “common prosperity” by 2025 in 5 areas: tech innovation, economic development, high quality job creation, vulnerable population support, “common prosperity” development fund.
— Eunice Yoon (@onlyyoontv) September 2, 2021
Common prosperity clarification: Beijing isn't planning to build a European-style welfare state, with senior officials repeatedly drawing a connection between government assistance and "laziness" pic.twitter.com/nXnwrvACK9
— Tom Hancock (@hancocktom) September 1, 2021
Yes, it's a kind of populism that plays well among urban residents, who think the lazy peasants and others will gobble up their prosperity…
— Ian Johnson (@iandenisjohnson) September 1, 2021
The state is also taking more a muscular approach to corralling Alibaba. Control over data is at the center of many of the new regulations. The city of Tianjin has asked all municipally controlled enterprises to move their data off of Alibaba’s cloud servers. At Reuters, Julie Zhu reported that state-backed firms intend to take a stake in a portion of Ant Group’s business, securing themselves access to Ant’s vast troves of user data:
The partners plan to establish a personal credit-scoring firm, said the people, adding that such a firm and ownership structure was one aspect of restructuring ordered by regulators who put a sudden stop to Ant’s blockbuster initial public offering (IPO) in November.
[…] Under the plan, Ant and Zhejiang Tourism Investment Group Co Ltd (ZJGVTT.UL) will each own 35% of the venture, while other state-backed partners, Hangzhou Finance and Investment Group and Zhejiang Electronic Port, will each hold slightly more than 5%, said one of the people.
[…] The proposed joint venture would collect, manage and analyse consumer data to score people’s credit, thereby bringing Ant’s main business-data operations together and making regulatory oversight easier, said one of the people. [Source]
Alibaba’s troubles are well summarized in a biting new iteration of a cartoon satirizing the relationship between entrepreneurs, the Party, and young nationalists. In the original cartoon, Winnie the Pooh (a stand-in for Xi Jinping), a hare (the titular character of Year Hare Affair, representing patriotic young Chinese) and a caricature of Jack Ma are seated around a table: the hare has one cookie on his plate, Jack Ma has a small pile of cookies, and Winnie has a giant pile of cookies. Winnie points to Jack Ma and tells the hare: “That Capitalist took away your cookies!” In the latest spoof, Jack Ma has but one cookie, the hare only crumbs, and Winnie an enormous pile of cookies covered with a red cloth. This time, Winnie tells the hare, “I’ll help you steal that Capitalist’s cookies.”