An Alibaba worker’s allegations that she was raped by her boss after being forced to drink with clients has set off public outrage, in the latest prominent #MeToo case that sheds a light on the pervasive sexual violence and discrimination against women in China.
Although Alibaba moved to fire the alleged rapist following a backlash, the delayed response has failed to calm an outpouring of criticism targeting China’s biggest tech company. This came at a particularly sensitive time for the half-trillion-dollar company as the Chinese public and the authorities are increasingly wary of the growing power of the country’s tech behemoths.
The anger stemmed in part from a supervisor’s response after the woman accused her boss of rape.
In a Saturday post on Alibaba’s intranet, a female worker said she was plied with alcohol at a business dinner on July 27 in the northeastern city of Jinan, according to a copy of the post seen by VICE World News.
The woman said she was molested by a client after passing out from drinking. The next day, she wrote, she woke up naked on a hotel bed and recalled her boss, Wang Chengwen, kissing and groping her while lying on top of her. She said she could not find her underwear in the room, but saw a box of condoms on the nightstand.
Security footage showed Wang entered her hotel room at least four times after 10 p.m., she said.
The woman said she reported the incident to the police and the management of an Alibaba grocery-shopping service she works for. But after hearing about her experience, a male supervisor told her that women were not well-suited for her job because it required traveling and drinking with clients, she said. The manager added that he had been hiring more men instead, she wrote.
When she demanded that Wang be fired, the management refused. “[The managers] did not make a decision to fire him,” she wrote in the account. “Shockingly, the reason was in consideration of my reputation.”
She eventually resorted to protesting at a cafeteria at Alibaba’s headquarters, she wrote, but security guards surrounded her and threatened to call the police.
The woman’s accusations and photos of her demonstration went viral on social media and prompted a wave of anger at what people believe to be Alibaba’s failure in both preventing workplace sexual abuse and responding to an egregious rape accusation.
Rising feminist voices on the Chinese internet have prompted more women to speak up against the gender discrimination and sexual abuse that often go unpunished under a patriarchal society.
The Alibaba case blew up on the internet one week after pop star Kris Wu was detained on suspicion of rape. It prompted discussions on the lack of anti-sexual harassment mechanisms at Chinese companies and the toxic business drinking culture, which frequently subjects women to verbal and physical sexual assaults by their male colleagues and clients.
On Monday, Alibaba’s chief executive Daniel Zhang said the company would fire Wang, who admitted to “intimate acts” with the accuser. Two executives in charge of the woman’s retail unit had resigned, he said. He also pledged to set up an anti-sexual harassment policy.
An Alibaba spokesperson told VICE World News on Monday that the company had a “zero-tolerance policy” toward sexual harassment, but did not address what the woman said were her manager’s “victim-blaming” comments. It’s unclear if the manager will face penalties.
The police in Jinan said on Sunday it was investigating the case. The supermarket chain Jinan Hualian said on Monday it had fired the employee accused of molesting the woman.
The case against the Alibaba manager is the most high-profile rape accusation in China’s tech industry after the founder of another e-commerce giant, Richard Liu, was accused of raping a female Chinese student following a networking drink in the United States in 2018. The Chinese public was at the time divided over which side to believe, after U.S. prosecutors decided not to press charges.
But the online support for potential sexual abuse victims has become much stronger now. Once worshipped as pioneers of China’s economic reforms, Chinese tech companies are facing a regulatory crackdown as well as growing public skepticism about the power the country’s wealthy entrepreneurs wield on ordinary workers and consumers. Shares of Alibaba fell by as much as 4.4 percent in Hong Kong trading on Monday.
The responses from Alibaba have so far failed to ease the anger. Many internet users have questioned why potential rape victims had to stage public protests to be taken seriously. “When you see a cockroach under the sun, it shows it’s getting too crowded for them in the dark,” said one of the top-voted comments on the microblogging site Weibo.
At the end of her intranet post, the accuser said she was risking losing her job by telling her story in public. “The strongest weapon in the world is the determination to go out of one’s way,” she wrote. “I have run out of tears... I will fight till the end no matter what!”