Over the weekend, China’s internet blew up over a sexual assault scandal at Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. It was a rare instance that laid bare China’s struggle with the #Metoo movement, and a possible turning point for the corporate world there.
It started with a female employee of the online shopping behemoth accusing her boss of rape during a business trip. On Monday, Alibaba said it fired the accused, who’s now the subject of a police probe, and that two executives, who apparently mishandled the claim, resigned.
This looks like a swift reaction, but it’s not. The business trip—which involved a night of forced drinking, according to the woman’s account—took place in late July, and she first reported the assault internally on Aug. 2. But Alibaba Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang said he only became aware of the allegation after the woman’s ordeal went viral on social media. “I’m shocked, furious and ashamed,” Zhang wrote in his first internal memo about the incident. A day later, he told staff: “We must rebuild, and we must change.”
Changing is not easy in a society where patriarchy is deeply entrenched. Yes, China’s #MeToo movement has had its moments: Allegations against a professor at an elite university in Beijing, a television news anchor and, most recently, pop star Kris Wu gained wide attention.
But at Chinese companies, especially in the tech sector, bosses, customers and shareholders are quick to forgive or simply forget. JD.com Inc. founder Richard Liu, who was arrested in the U.S. in 2018 for an alleged rape case and was never charged, enjoyed a wave of support on social media at the time. The billionaire denied the charges before disappearing from the spotlight and remains in control of the Alibaba rival. Doug Jiang, an IDG venture investor who was fired for making sexual advances on women the same year, quickly made his comeback at a promising cryptocurrency startup. And labor groups have in the past called out internet giants like Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba for posting job ads that appear to discriminate against or objectify women. Tencent has apologized and promised to make changes, while Alibaba has emphasized it provides equal job opportunities regardless of gender.
With Alibaba’s latest scandal, what shocked many to the core were the steps the victim took just to get herself heard. According to her post on the company’s internal network, which was picked up by local media, the employee had filed complaints with human resources but was brushed aside. So she opted to hand out flyers at a staff canteen to seek attention, until security guards violently removed her from the scene, she wrote. Alibaba Chief People Officer Judy Tong will be given a demerit in her records for lack of action, the CEO said.
In Hollywood and Silicon Valley, #MeToo has toppled industry figures. But those company towns were founded on the principle of subversion by cultural progressives and technological disruptors. In China, people are more accustomed to obeying authority and seniority.
This dynamic makes sexual misconduct less visible within the corporate machine there. And it helps explain why clients or managers would force people to drink on the job and why those workers, often junior employees, would comply.
But the public response to Alibaba suggests a change in sentiment toward aspects of what has been a routine part of doing business. The Alibaba brand took serious damage, and the episode could serve as a wakeup call for the whole industry. —Zheping Huang in Hong Kong
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