As Alibaba went from a battered Chinese start-up to an e-commerce giant for years, some of its businesses welcomed new employees with an icebreaker ceremony that alerted many of those who endured it.
According to former employees, new employees had to answer deeply personal questions in front of their colleagues: about their first love, their first kiss and their first sexual encounters. The questions were phrased in a way that was not printable in this newspaper, they said.
The Chinese tech giant has denied such claims. But last weekend an employee on the company’s internal website claimed she was sexually assaulted by a corporate client and then raped by her manager – and the revelation unleashed a series of stories of ice breaking activity. Former employees said online that they too had gone through it.
And in a letter to management signed by more than 6,000 Alibaba employees over the weekend, employees urged the company to ban sexual remarks and games at icebreaker and other business events. (Alibaba has said it has fired the rape employee and will take other steps to stop the sexual misconduct. It has not responded to requests for comment.)
The allegations against Alibaba may have shocked the Chinese tech industry and the public, but they shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
The male-dominated sector has long objectified women, blamed the victims and normalized sexual violence. Women who dare to speak out about sexual harassment and violence are referred to as troublemakers or worse.
Three years ago, a University of Minnesota student Richard Liu, the billionaire and founder of one of China’s largest corporations, JD.com, alleged that she raped her after an alcoholic business lunch. After Mr. Liu denied the allegations and the police refused to bring charges, the Chinese Internet and technology industries stepped on his side, calling her a gold digger, among other misogynistic slurs.
Public allegations often simply go unanswered. An employee of Didi, the driving company, was fired for poor performance last year after complaining to the company’s facilities in Jiangsu Province about being physically and sexually abused after being forced to drink alcohol at a business lunch drink. She later posted photos of her badly injured face and a doctor’s diagnosis on social media. Didi didn’t respond to questions about whether her allegations were investigated at the time or when asked for comment again this week.
Incidents like the one at Alibaba happen across the industry, said a tech investor. She asked for anonymity because she feared that entrepreneurs, some of whom make dirty jokes in large chat groups, would find her too judgmental and no longer trust her.
The industry has toned down some of its most blatant and explicit behaviors. For example, recently hired Alibaba employees told me they didn’t have to answer personal questions during their icebreaker ceremonies.
And if society doesn’t force them to change, the Communist Party will. Amid government crackdown on Big Tech’s powers, 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 will not be easy to eradicate.
Not so long ago, Chinese tech companies invited popular Japanese porn stars to their events to advertise. Qihoo 360, a cybersecurity company, invited a Japanese porn star to dance with its programmers in 2014 while some of its female employees wore revealing outfits.
A business unit of China’s other Internet giant Tencent had its female employees kneel down at a 2017 event and open water bottles with their mouths while their male colleagues were clutching their crotch. Tencent later apologized.
Over the years search giant Baidu, smartphone maker Xiaomi, and JD.com have had Victoria’s Secret-style lingerie runways at their annual celebrations. Sometimes the models were their female employees.
At the time, few, if any, people condemned their behavior. Some programmers responded by asking if these companies were hiring.
Women face the same challenges everywhere. But in China’s tech industry, those attitudes have been passed on from internet giants like Alibaba to alumni who are now running startups big and small.
Didi founder and former Alibaba executive Cheng Wei adopted much of his management style from the e-commerce giant he called his real alma mater. One of Didi’s first employees told a magazine that some new employees were shocked by how far the icebreaker ceremony could go, such a flattering profile in 2016. The employee said she felt closer to her colleagues after learning her personal information.
A former employee, who asked for anonymity, said she was too scared not to answer these questions for fear of upsetting her co-workers and her manager.
Even punishments at tech companies can be sexual in nature. Mr. Cheng said he punished a male executive by ordering the executive to “run naked.” A former Didi manager explained that in the early years, others were similarly told to walk around the company premises, even though men were allowed to wear their underwear and women were allowed to wear paper clothes over their underwear.
Management and other staff said the practice has disappeared in recent years.
The Alibaba crisis also sparked discussions about two misogynist rituals at Chinese business lunches: forced drinking and women’s society.
Young women are considered accessories at business lunches. “A meal without a girl is not a meal,” was the headline of a 2017 column in the Chinese edition of GQ, accompanied by an illustration of naked women in soup bowls.
In the allegations she posted on Alibaba’s internal website, the employee said her supervisor told her customers over dinner, “Look how good I am to you, I brought you a beauty.”
The Alibaba customer she claimed sexually abused her denied doing anything inappropriate. “It was a normal meal,” the customer told a Beijing newspaper. “I just hugged and cuddled her. Nothing else. “(His company said he was fired for misconduct and is cooperating with a police investigation.)
The Alibaba employee wrote that her nightmare began after she was forced to drink too much.
Forced alcohol consumption plays an important and problematic role in China’s business culture. It can serve as a power game that disadvantages women and young professionals. Refusing to drink with a manager is considered offensive.
At a business lunch last year, a bank manager slapped a new employee after he refused repeated instructions from the manager to replace his soft drinks with alcohol. The bank later disciplined the manager.
In their call for action over the weekend, Alibaba employees called on the company to ban forced alcohol consumption and to end the association of alcohol with businesses. The company stopped banning it, saying it supported its employees’ right to refuse requests to drink.
Alibaba said it fired the rape manager and ousted two senior managers who ignored the woman’s pleas. Still, his reaction made many people unhappy.
Wang Shuai, Alibaba’s PR chief, published a post written by a colleague. The Post complained that some people simply believed in rumors and assumed the worst from Alibaba. People who are too critical of the company may leave, the post said bluntly.
In response, members of the public referred to episodes which they said above indicated problems.
A popular video showed that Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, made a sex joke when he hosted a group wedding ceremony – an annual company event that usually hits the headlines – for its employees in 2019, “he said, referring to it on the punitive work schedule from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. “In life we want 669,” he said. “Six days, six times. The key is durable. “
He toyed with the pronunciation of the word “nine”, which sounds like the word for “long-lived”. His audience cheered and applauded.