On August 6, a female employee walked into a cafeteria at Alibaba’s corporate campus in Hangzhou, a megaphone and leaflets in her hands. People ambled in line to buy food with their smartphones while several security guards approached her, all seemingly unsure of what to do. One of her coworkers took out a phone and pressed record. In a video later shared on the internet, the woman can be heard screaming: “A male executive at Alibaba raped a female employee!” and “This is a criminal case!”
The next day, the woman posted a lengthy account on Alibaba’s internal website accusing her boss of sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious after a “drunken night” on July 27 during a work trip in Jinan, a city in eastern China. The post also alleged that managers at Alibaba failed to take action after she had reported the incident to them. The post gained traction on the company platform, where thousands of angry employees demanded answers. From there, it burst into public debate, topping the list of trending topics on Weibo.
Alibaba has since fired the male manager. But the case is only a starting point to address sexism in the company and in China’s workplaces. While the incident has been condemned in the press and on social media, censorship has prevented a broader discussion of the #MeToo movement from happening. The #MeToo tag was banned on Weibo in 2018, as were code words like “rice bunny” or “🍚🐰.” Weibo doesn’t surface relevant results if you do a search for “#MeToo” together with “Alibaba.” The current censorship environment may discourage women with similar experiences from coming forward.
Police charges for the Alibaba employee were, perhaps, softer than expected. Chinese police confirmed that both the male employee and the client had committed “sexual indecency” (a charge short of rape). Police also confirmed that the woman consumed a large quantity of alcohol at the work dinner, but denied that she was forced to drink, as detailed in her own allegations. Two senior managers resigned. A criminal investigation is underway.
Chinese official media quickly chimed in to condemn Alibaba and the country’s tech companies more broadly. The People’s Daily called for corporations to “recalibrate” their cultures. The Global Times cautioned that large tech companies should make “positive” contributions to society in addition to making profits. Others adopted a harsher tone. In a now deleted article, a populist new media platform affiliated with the People’s Daily called for “the capital be put in a cage,” and hinted that a fall of Alibaba may be a boon for the marketplace.
These essays marked a stark contrast from Western press coverage, which saw the case as reigniting the #MeToo movement in China. In fact, phrases like “#MeToo,” “women’s rights,” and “feminism” are largely absent from official media reports in China. Discussion focused on Alibaba’s culture and the company’s alleged failure to protect its workers.
“Bro culture” is well-understood to contribute to gender discrimination at Alibaba. Off-color remarks are common, according to current and former employees. A female worker in her late 20s who left the company last year told me that colleagues and managers routinely probed into her relationship status and sex life, often half-jokingly. To succeed at Alibaba, “You have to be aggressive without being seen as uptight,” she said. “It’s very much a boys’ club.”
“People take pride in being outspoken and unchecked,” a male employee who has worked at the company for four years told me, “and [making] explicit comments and jokes is part of that culture.”
It begins right from recruitment. In 2015, Alibaba posted a notice to hire a “programmer motivator.” Applicants were required to be “attractive.” The ad specifically mentioned Japanese porn star Sola Aoi as an example. It was deleted after an angry outcry on social media. The now notorious “ice-breaking” tradition, a ritual for new recruits, often involved games with sexual connotations that made women (as well as men) feel uncomfortable. Earlier this year, Alibaba denied the existence of such a practice, but employees said that the tradition still exists to varying degrees in some business units.
But sexism, excessive drinking on business occasions, and the lack of formal channels to address sexual harassment complaints are not unique to Alibaba. (As for the hiring of “programmer motivators,” other tech companies have made headlines for similar worker “benefits.”)
Women in other industries also suffer from various forms of discrimination. Recruitment in public and private sectors often prefers men. Phrases like “men-only” and “male candidates preferred” are routinely written into job ads. During job interviews, female applicants are often probed by HR about their relationship status and plans to have children, despite regulations banning such practices.
Few Chinese companies have established channels to handle harassment complaints. Prevention training is virtually unheard of. A female associate at a private equity firm in Shanghai told me that it is common for managers to assign young women to “wine-and-dine” clients, who are often older men. Support for young professionals, especially women, is lacking. “You are on your own to draw boundaries and fend for yourself at business occasions,” she said.
Even for victims who have enough resources to pursue legal action, finding justice is no easy task. Sexual harassment did not become a cause of action in Chinese courts until 2019. Even now, legislators and judges are still struggling to define what the crime entails, and it is difficult for victims to satisfy evidence requirements.
The outcry against Alibaba came on the heels of another case. Days before, official media took aim at Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu, who has since been arrested for rape. Commentary took aim at the “abnormalities” and “privilege” of the entertainment industry. Here, too, the F-word (feminism) wasn’t used.
In recent years, Chinese women’s rights activists have been detained and harrassed, rights groups have been shut down, and cyberbullying and internet censorship have decentralized feminist activism in China. A recent study shows that the Chinese authorities increasingly targeted women’s rights groups following the #MeToo movement. And President Xi Jinping has called for women to embrace their “unique roles” in child-rearing duties and caring for the elderly.
“The Alibaba case made headlines precisely because it happened at Alibaba,” said Lulu, a social worker based in Beijing who help victims of workplace sexual harassment seek legal action.
She has a point. Alibaba’s internal website is famous for being a space for open discussions. All employees have access to the forum. Users post with their real names. It is not uncommon to see posts criticizing managers and the company in harsh terms. After the victim posted an 11-page document detailing her allegations, angry colleagues quickly came together to condemn the company and demand answers.
“As far as I know, there is no such ecosystem for free speech at other workplaces,” said Lulu. This is not to say, however, that people at Alibaba (who call themselves “Ali-ren” or “Ali-people”) do not engage in self-censorship. An employee involved in drafting an open statement to management told me that she and several other colleagues considered adding the phrase “#MeToo” to the statement, but ultimately decided against it. “We wanted to be practical to push forward our demands. We do not want sensitive issues to get in the way,” she said.
Still, without such a space, it would be more difficult to make similar allegations public at a government agency, a state-owned enterprise, or even a smaller private firm.
Alibaba has since created a new committee to examine sexual harassment complaints, and has pledged to put a stop to explicit jokes and forced drinking in the workplace. It also promises to establish a formal training mechanism to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the future.
“Things won’t improve until the government respects women’s rights, and the society dares to say the word feminism,” said Lulu, “But if that won’t happen anytime soon, stopping forced drinking is a good start.”