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Alibaba manager accused of rape is released, adding to China’s #Metoo debate

Within Alibaba, large numbers of employees have rallied around the accusations to push back against what they say is a sexist workplace culture. In a letter to management last month signed by more than 6,000 Alibaba workers, employees urged the company to forbid sexual remarks and games in orientation events.

By: New York Times |
September 8, 2021 11:31:12 am
The Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. headquarters in Hangzhou, China. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Police in China released a former Alibaba manager who had been accused of rape by a co-worker after prosecutors declined to charge him, deepening debate about an episode that has shaken the Chinese technology industry and prompted a reckoning for the fledgling #MeToo movement in the country.

In a statement issued late Monday, authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan said the behavior of the manager — referred to by his surname, Wang — did not constitute a crime and that his arrest had not been approved. He was released after 15 days of detention.

Last month, a female employee at Alibaba said Wang had assaulted and raped her during a July business trip after what she called a “drunken night” entertaining colleagues. When the woman, whose last name is Zhou, reported the case to Alibaba, she said she received no recourse.

She resorted to shouting about the assault in a company cafeteria last month. “An Ali male executive raped a female subordinate, and no one in the company has pursued this,” Zhou said, according to a video posted on the internet.

Eventually, Zhou published an essay about the alleged assault on the internet.

The details were widely shared on Chinese social media and became the latest in a string of #MeToo episodes in a country where the movement has struggled to gain traction.

The account raised an uproar within Alibaba, a company that has long publicly celebrated the importance of its female staff, with employees saying that it was symptomatic of deeper problems, including rampant casual sexism.

Responding to the memo, Alibaba’s top management fired Wang and said in a memo to employees that the company would expedite the formation of anti-sexual harassment policies and a dedicated channel for workers to report misconduct. Two senior managers resigned for failing to respond appropriately after the woman’s report.

“Alibaba Group has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct, and ensuring a safe workplace for all our employees is Alibaba’s top priority,” a company spokesperson wrote in a statement Tuesday. In a separate statement on Chinese social media, it said, “We always believe in the power of justice and in goodwill.”

Authorities had been investigating Wang in connection with the crime of “forcible indecency,” which can include sexual assault but stops short of rape. When the prosecutor ruled that Wang’s actions did not constitute a crime, he was released after an administrative penalty for the crime of indecency.

Police had arrested another man who was at the dinner as a client of Alibaba’s on suspicion of “forcible indecency.” He was also accused by Zhou of sexual assault.

While plaintiffs can file civil cases, China’s court system typically offers them little recourse when it comes to workplace sexual assault and harassment. From 2010-17, about as many civil suits came from those accused of misdeeds, alleging defamation, as from accusers.

The decision by the prosecutors generated mixed reactions online. “This man can start a training course: how to implement a noncriminal forcible indecency,” wrote one user sarcastically in a widely shared response.

A supporter of Wang’s argued back: “It’s good to act in accordance with the law. Please don’t judge the case by public opinion.”

Wang’s wife said on her verified account on the Weibo social media platform that he was released Tuesday morning. She thanked the courts for their “fair handling of the case” and the “majority of enthusiastic netizens for their understanding, encouragement and support.”

While the #MeToo movement has had some small victories since it first emerged in China in 2018, women say the odds are still stacked against them in a country that tightly limits dissent and activism, and in which the top echelon of political leaders are almost exclusively male. Women say it can be almost impossible to file police complaints because they lack video evidence, which authorities often require.

The Alibaba episode has fueled an increasingly vocal campaign against abuse and sexism in China. This summer, police detained the popular Canadian Chinese singer Kris Wu on suspicion of rape after an 18-year-old university student in Beijing accused him of pressuring young women into having sex. Wu, who has been the most prominent figure to face #MeToo allegations in China, has denied the allegations.

The episode at Alibaba has also brought more attention to questions of equity in the male-dominated Chinese tech industry, which many female employees say has long objectified women and blamed victims. Three years ago, when a student at the University of Minnesota alleged that the billionaire founder of Alibaba rival JD.com, Richard Liu, had raped her after an alcohol-fueled dinner, many in the tech industry took his side, calling her a gold digger, among other misogynistic slurs. Liu denied her accusation and police in Minnesota dropped their investigation.

Within Alibaba, large numbers of employees have rallied around the accusations to push back against what they say is a sexist workplace culture. In a letter to management last month signed by more than 6,000 Alibaba workers, employees urged the company to forbid sexual remarks and games in orientation events.

Yet, Alibaba’s internal response has not always been so supportive. On internal company message boards, some employees cast doubts on Zhou’s account after police declined to investigate her rape accusations. Alibaba also recently fired 10 employees for leaking information about the episode, according to two people familiar with the matter.

When Zhou asked three days after she reported the assault why her boss had not been fired, she was told it was out of consideration for her reputation.

“This ridiculous logic,” she wrote. “Just who are they protecting?”

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