#MeToo accusers have faced backlash in China. With the Alibaba rape case, that changed

August 10, 2021, 10:53 AM UTC
Women ride past a sign at Alibaba Group Holding headquarters in Hangzhou in May 2021.
Qilai Shen—Bloomberg/Getty Images

A deeply personal and chilling account of sexual assault from a female employee of Alibaba—the company known as “China’s Amazon”—has sparked public outrage and spurred a renewed look at gender bias and discrimination in Chinese work culture.

According to an essay the employee posted to Alibaba’s internal company intranet on Saturday evening, the woman’s boss, Wang Chengwen, forced her to attend a business trip in northeastern China on July 27. That evening, Wang pressured her to drink to the point where she became drunk and unconscious. The next morning, the woman claims, she woke up in her hotel room and realized that she had been raped by Wang. She also watched video footage from the hotel cameras, which showed Wang entering her room four times that night.

On Aug. 2, the Alibaba employee reported the events to the company, according to her account. But four days later, the company told her that it had “no way to fire Wang…They said they couldn’t expel him [just for] my reputation,“ she wrote in her 11-page essay. “After writing this account, I couldn’t control myself [not] to cry. As I think about it, it feels unreal, like a dreadful, hopeless nightmare.”

Her account eventually went viral on the Chinese Internet. On Weibo, China’s top blogging platform, “Alibaba” became the top trending search over the weekend, and Internet users overwhelmingly expressed support for the woman. In a note on Monday, Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang said: “The accused perpetrator…is in serious violation of company policy. He will be fired and never be hired. Whether he has [violated the law] or not will be determined by law enforcement. As for our [female] colleague, this incident has caused tremendous harm to her. We will do everything we can to take care of her.” Wang hasn’t made any public statement.

The incident is “definitely not a singular event, nor confined to Alibaba,” says Pocket Sun, cofounder and managing partner at SoGal, a female-founded global venture capital firm that’s based in New York and China. Rather, it “only demonstrates how deep and widespread gender inequality and sexual misogyny is in Chinese companies.”

Still, some experts are hopeful that the magnitude of the response to the woman’s account—from the public and her employer—signifies a turning point for China’s workplace norms.

It’s clear that female professionals in China are now “much more willing to stand up and speak against sexual harassment and assault,” says Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Female rights have been a hot topic for the last few years…It seems that society is a lot more ready to make changes in this area versus a decade ago,” says Rui Ma, host of podcast Tech Buzz China.

Job requirements

In the U.S., the #MeToo movement took off in 2018, igniting a reckoning over the power imbalances and female exploitation in Hollywood and the corporate world. But the movement failed to gain the same kind of traction in China owing to cultural taboos and government censorship and despite a few high-profile accusations of sexual harassment from former intern Zhou Xiaoxuan and a group of female university students from China’s top postsecondary institutions.

In China, sexism and gender-based discrimination and harassment remain prevalent in professional settings.

It’s a “deeply ingrained problem in the workplace across all sectors,” says Geoff Crothall, communications director at China Labour Bulletin (CLB). Chinese labor law, especially antidiscrimination and harassment measures, is poorly enforced, he says.

It’s not uncommon for the public and private sectors to engage in discriminatory hiring practices, at both large and small organizations. Job advertisements for high-skill or high-level positions often specify a preference for male candidates, while openings that seek female candidates are usually lower-paid positions such as low-level administrative positions, notes a 2018 Human Rights Watch report.

And some advertisements are blatantly sexist, like a job ad that Alibaba posted in 2015 seeking female candidates for the position of “programmer encouragement specialist.” The requirements included a “stunning appearance” with physical traits similar to those of adult film star Sora Aoi or famed Korean actress Song Hye-Kyo. “You must understand how to compliment and encourage programmers…and wake [them] up for morning meetings,” reads a translation by Quartz.

One female finance professional from Guangzhou who wished to remain anonymous told Fortune that the sexist job listings she receives from recruiters and hiring managers are demoralizing. “It killed my willingness to look for jobs in mainland China,” she says. One recruiter sent her a job opening last December for a Beijing-based investment fund. It read: “[The candidate] must be 30-35 years old and have a light family burden because the job often requires socializing. [She] must be able to drink, have a cheerful personality, good eyesight, good image, good temperament and sweet mouth. [She] must be cheerful and generous—and not act like a little princess.”

Workplace practices that demean women and treat them as sexual objects are commonplace. In 2017, Internet giant Tencent held an annual party in which female staffers had to use their mouths to pry open water bottles tucked between the legs of male colleagues. “Women have to endure sexist practices and language at the workplace on a daily basis,” with beautiful women seen as “gifts” to men in the office, says Wang of HRW. China’s top tech firms, from Alibaba to Baidu to Tencent, have all published ads boasting of the “goddesses” who work at their companies to attract male recruits. Alibaba’s recruitment division once posted photos of young female employees, describing them as “late night benefits.”

The prevalence of China’s “996” workday—a reference to the 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six-day workweek—and workplace drinking practices have created challenges for working women that are somewhat unique to the country. Some women have designed tactics to avoid alcohol on business outings, such as drinking water while pretending to drink alcohol or procuring doctors’ notes that cite health reasons for not drinking, says Wang.

Brave new world

The recent Alibaba incident is unsettling, but it could translate into a “significant” milestone for workplace equality in China, given the near-unanimous support for the victim and Alibaba’s public response, says Sun.

Past incidents haven’t generated this kind of united front. In 2018, e-commerce giant and Alibaba rival JD.com became embroiled in controversy when a 21-year-old Chinese undergraduate student accused company CEO Richard Liu of raping her in the U.S. (He said the sex was consensual, and prosecutors didn’t bring charges.) In that case, the Chinese public questioned the allegations, and many Internet users accused the student of being a “gold digger” and sending an “open invitation” to Liu.

In the Alibaba employee’s account, her detailed writing, coupled with the police investigation, “all added to this incident being [perceived as genuine],” says Sun.

While the #MeToo movement didn’t create the kind of upheaval in China that it did in the West, Wang of HRW says it encouraged women to go public with their accounts of abuse and primed the public to hear them out. It’s a permanent change that’s apparent in how the public has responded to other recent cases, she says. The Alibaba incident occurred only a week after Chinese authorities detained pop star Kris Wu on allegations of rape; Chinese netizens wrote angry messages in support of Wu’s accuser, Du Meizhu, an 18-year-old college student.

Zhang outlined Alibaba’s next steps in his Monday memo, promising to establish companywide anti–sexual harassment training, a dedicated reporting channel for abuse allegations, and a formal anti–sexual harassment policy. The company declined to comment further, but indicated that around half of its employees are female and one-third of its management are women.

That Alibaba didn’t have an anti–sexual harassment policy in place before the incident is unsurprising, experts say, given the lax enforcement of workplace laws, coupled with the widespread acceptance of sexist practices.

But Alibaba’s experience should be a warning to other Chinese firms to “build their own internal regulations and prevention systems,” says Daisy Qiu, founder and CEO of Ruiwen She Power, a platform for female learning and empowerment. With Alibaba now as an example, other corporations must take workplace discrimination and anti-harassment policy seriously, “paying close attention…and wanting to protect their own brand and reputation,” she says.

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