Alibaba Rape Allegation Reveals China Tech’s Seamy Side
For years, as Alibaba transitioned from a rambling Chinese start-up to an e-commerce giant, some of its business units have welcomed new employees with an ice-breaker ceremony that has alarmed many who have left it behind. have endured.
New hires had to answer deeply personal questions in front of their colleagues, according to former employees: about their first love, their first kiss and their first sexual relations. The questions were worded in a way that is not printable in this newspaper, they said.
The Chinese tech giant has denied such claims. But last weekend, an employee alleged on the company’s internal website that she was sexually assaulted by a company customer and then raped by her manager – and the disclosure sparked a host of stories. on icebreaker activities. Former employees have said online that they, too, have been through them.
And in a management letter signed over the weekend by more than 6,000 Alibaba employees, employees urged the company to ban sexual remarks and play at icebreaker events and other events. commercial. (Alibaba said it had fired the employee accused of rape and would take further steps to end the sexual misconduct. It did not respond to requests for comment.)
The allegations against Alibaba may have shocked the Chinese tech industry and the public, but it shouldn’t have surprised them.
The male-dominated sector has long objectified women, blamed victims and normalized sexual violence. Women who dare to speak out about sexual harassment and violence are called troublemakers or worse.
Three years ago, a University of Minnesota student alleged that Richard Liu, the billionaire founder of one of China’s biggest companies, JD.com, raped her after a business lunch soaked in alcohol. After Mr. Liu denied the allegations and the police refused to press charges, the Chinese internet and the tech industry took her side and called her a gold digger, among other misogynistic slurs.
Often, public allegations are simply not addressed. An employee of Didi, the ridesharing company, was fired for poor performance last year after complaining to the company’s operations in Jiangsu Province that she was physically and sexually assaulted after being forced to leave. binge on alcohol during a business meal. She then posted photos of her severely bruised face and a doctor’s diagnosis on social media. Didi did not respond to questions about whether she investigated his allegations at the time or when asked to comment again this week.
Incidents like Alibaba’s are happening across the industry, a female tech investor said. She requested anonymity because she was concerned that entrepreneurs, some of whom make dirty jokes in large discussion groups, think she is too critical and stop trusting her.
The industry has toned down some of its most egregious and self-explanatory behaviors. For example, recently hired Alibaba employees told me that they don’t have to answer personal questions during their icebreaker ceremonies.
And if society doesn’t force them to change, the Communist Party will. Amid a government crackdown on Big Tech powers, the People’s Daily, the party’s official newspaper, warned on social media that nothing “can be too big to fail.”
But the toxic culture of China’s tech industry is so ingrained that it won’t be easy to eradicate.
Not so long ago, Chinese tech companies would invite popular Japanese pornstars to their events to advertise. Qihoo 360, a cybersecurity company, invited a Japanese pornstar to dance with its programmers in 2014, while some of its employees wore revealing outfits.
A business unit of the other Chinese internet giant, Tencent, had its female workers kneel down at an event in 2017 and use their mouths to open water bottles that male colleagues held in their crotches. Tencent later apologized.
Over the years, search giant Baidu, smartphone maker Xiaomi, and JD.com have held Victoria Secret-style lingerie fashion shows in their annual celebrations. Sometimes the models were their employees.
At the time, few people, if any, condemned their behavior. Some programmers responded by asking if these companies were hiring.
Women everywhere face the same challenges. But in the Chinese tech industry, these attitudes have been passed down from internet giants like Alibaba to the elders who now run start-ups large and small.
Cheng Wei, founder of Didi and former Alibaba executive, borrowed much of his management style from the e-commerce giant, which he called his true alma mater. One of Didi’s first hires told a magazine that a few new employees were shocked at how far her icebreaker ceremony could go, according to a flattering profile in 2016. The employee said she was feeling closer to colleagues after knowing their personal details.
A former employee who requested anonymity said she was too afraid not to answer these questions for fear of upsetting her colleagues and her manager.
Even punishments in tech companies can be sexual in nature. Mr. Cheng said he punished a male leader by ordering him to “run naked”. A former Didi executive explained that others were also invited to run around the company’s campus in his early years, although men were allowed to wear their underwear and women could wear shirts. paper clothes over their underwear.
The executive and other employees said the practice has disappeared in recent years.
The Alibaba crisis has also sparked discussions about two misogynistic rituals at Chinese business meals: forced consumption and the company of women.
Young women can be seen as accessories during business meals. “A meal without girls is not a meal,” read the title of a 2017 column in the Chinese edition of GQ, along with an illustration of naked women in soup bowls.
In allegations she posted on Alibaba’s internal website, the employee said her manager told her customers at dinner, “Look how good I am to you, I brought you a beauty. “
The Alibaba client who she said sexually assaulted her denied doing anything inappropriate. “It was an ordinary meal,” the customer told a Beijing newspaper. “I only hugged and cuddled her. Nothing else. ”(His company said he was fired for misconduct and was cooperating with a police investigation.)
The Alibaba employee wrote that her nightmare began after being forced to drink too much.
Forced consumption plays an important and problematic role in China’s corporate culture. This can serve as a power game that disadvantages women and junior employees. Refusing to drink with a superior is considered offensive.
At a business dinner last year, a bank manager slapped a new employee after he rejected the manager’s repeated orders to replace his soft drinks with alcohol. The bank then sanctioned the manager.
In their call to action over the weekend, Alibaba employees urged the company to ban forced drinking and to stop linking alcohol to business. The company shut down before banning it, saying it supported the right of its employees to reject requests for alcohol consumption.
Alibaba said it fired the director accused of rape and kicked out two senior executives who ignored the woman’s calls. Still, his response left a lot of people unhappy.
Wang Shuai, head of public relations at Alibaba, reposted an article he said a colleague wrote. The post complained that some people just believed the rumors and assumed the worst of Alibaba. People who are too critical of the company, the post bluntly said, could walk away.
In response, members of the public reported episodes that they believed pointed to issues at the top.
A widely circulated video showed Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, made a sex joke while hosting a group wedding ceremony – an annual event for the company that usually makes headlines – for its employees in 2019. spirit 996, ”he said, referring to the arduous 9am to 9pm work schedule, six days a week. “In life we want 669,” he said. “Six days, six times. The key is lasting.
He played with the pronunciation of the word “new”, which resembles the word “durable”. His audience applauds and applauds.
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