© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rape Accusations At Alibaba Bring China's #MeToo Movement Back Into The Spotlight

Alibaba's headquarters in Hangzhou, China. A female employee at the tech company is alleging that she was sexually assaulted by her manager.
Long Wei
VCG via Getty Images
Alibaba's headquarters in Hangzhou, China. A female employee at the tech company is alleging that she was sexually assaulted by her manager.

Updated August 18, 2021 at 11:47 AM ET

BEIJING – The client dinner in July began like any other: with copious amounts of alcohol and no other women present.

"Look how good I am to you," the female employee later recalled her male manager telling their clients when she arrived at the meal. "I brought you a beautiful girl," she remembered him saying.

She says the last thing she remembered that night was crying while her manager lay on top of her.

The woman's account is part of an 11-page essay uploaded Aug. 7 onto the internal message board of the powerful Chinese tech company Alibaba, where both she and her manager worked. The document was published internally and included the name of her manager and other executives.

Jinan city police said in a statement that they believe the woman was "sexually abused" by her Alibaba manager and a company client at a company dinner.

But the police said that despite their belief that she had been groped, there was no evidence the manager had raped the woman, as she had accused him of doing in a viral online essay published last week. Nor did they find evidence to support her claim that she had been forced to go on the work trip and then forced to drink at the company dinner.

Police do say security footage shows the manager entered the woman's hotel room multiple times and molested her. The next morning, the police say the manager entered the room with a box of condoms, which remained unopened. When he left, he took a pair of her underwear.

The woman's story and her allegations of sexual assault within one of China's most powerful private companies have incited a firestorm of public anger that has injected new life into the country's #MeToo movement, which has fizzled in recent years.

More than 6,000 Alibaba employees joined an online group over the weekend calling for justice for the victim, and her story has been one of the most-discussed topics on the Chinese social media account Weibo this week.

The essay painfully highlights a pervasive culture of excessive drinking and skewed gender expectations that still permeate China's corporate culture – and that critics say enable sexual assault.

"This kind of drinking culture is extremely common and encourages all sorts of behavior that crosses boundaries and disrespects women," says Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist, activist and writer.

Alibaba, which has more than 250,000 full-time employees, said it has fired the woman's manager; two other senior employees have resigned after being accused of failing to address the woman's allegations.

"We will do everything we can to take care of her," Daniel Zhang, Alibaba's chief executive, wrote in a company-wide memo on Monday, two days after the woman shared her account.

China's latest #MeToo case comes days after the country's arguably most famous pop star, Canadian-Chinese singer Kris Wu, was detained by Beijing police for allegedly sexually assaulting underage women.

Wu, 30, had been accused by an 18-year-old student of pressuring her and other women into having sex with him.

While Chinese women have gained much greater independence and recognition in society over the last four decades, gender discrimination remains, particularly in the workplace. Job recruitment websites routinely post advertisements with standard phrases such as "men only" and "male candidates preferred." Interview questions probing a female applicant's relationship status and plans to have children are not considered a faux pas but rather expected.

Those brave enough to publicize experiences of sexual harassment or discrimination must be prepared to face brutal trolling campaigns on the internet. They also must contend with employers who face fewer legal risks by ignoring complaints of sexual wrongdoing than they do for firing the accuser.

Meanwhile, survivors who speak out become vulnerable to defamation suits. For example, in 2018, Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former reporter for state broadcaster CCTV, became the poster child for China's then-burgeoning #MeToo movement when she wrote an essay accusing a male anchor, Zhu Jun, of sexually harassing her when she was an intern at the network. Zhu, who has denied these allegations, quickly sued Zhou for defamation, plunging her into nearly three years of legal battles. The case is ongoing.

"China's civil code says employers have a duty to prevent, investigate and respond to sexual misconduct in the workplace, but it does not say what, if any, [legal] liability employers face for failing to meet their duty," says Darius Longarino, senior fellow at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center.

Regarding their investigation of the case, the police in Jinan, the city in eastern China where the alleged sexual assault incident took place, said in a statement that confirming certain details would be "difficult" because they occurred in the "secret space" of a closed hotel room.

The woman says her ordeal began when her manager pressured her into taking a business trip from the city of Hangzhou, where Alibaba's headquarters are located, to Jinan. She says at dinner she felt obligated to accept the alcohol forced on her in the presence of clients and colleagues.

"I could not refuse, I would not refuse," she wrote. Quickly, she became unconscious.

The next day, she says she woke up naked in her hotel room. She says the room was in disarray, and her underwear was missing. On the nightstand was a used condom, she says.

She alleges that hotel security footage reviewed by the police the next day showed her former Alibaba manager dragging her into her hotel, requesting a copy of her room card and letting himself into her room.

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.

She says the experience plunged her into such emotional turmoil that she began to self-harm. "I thought about those disgusting people doing those disgusting things to me, and I really felt like I could not live anymore," she wrote.

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?"

Alibaba says it is now crafting an anti-sexual assault policy and designing a safe channel for employees to report such cases — systems the company did not previously have in place.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.