Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba is struggling to contain the fallout from the alleged rape of a female employee during a business trip, as local police launch an investigation and the company faces intense backlash over its handling of the case.
Police in the eastern city of Jinan announced Sunday they had begun investigating the incident, which took place in a local hotel on July 27.
The accuser — who works in Alibaba’s merchant operations division — claims she was sexually assaulted by her manager in her hotel room, after becoming intoxicated during a dinner with clients. She also alleges she was molested by a client during the dinner.
In a letter posted to a company work platform, the woman said she viewed hotel surveillance footage the following morning that showed her manager entering her room four times during the night of July 27.
According to the woman, she reported the assault to police in Jinan on July 28 and to Alibaba’s human resources department on August 2. After Alibaba failed to take action against the manager, she published her story via an internal staff platform and posted flyers demanding justice inside a company cafeteria this past Saturday.
The letter sparked outrage among Alibaba staff members and quickly leaked to Chinese media. On Sunday, more than 6,000 Alibaba employees signed a petition calling on the company to establish new mechanisms to prevent sexual abuse in the workplace.
“This is the darkest moment for everyone at Alibaba, as justice was neglected and trampled on in this case,” the petition reads.
The scandal has generated massive attention on Chinese social media. On Monday, six of the top 50 trending topics on microblogging platform Weibo were related to the incident. The hashtag “female Alibaba employee sexually assaulted” had been viewed over 800 million times by time of publication.
Alibaba has attempted to draw a line under the incident. On Sunday, Zhang Yong — the company’s CEO, who also goes by the name Daniel Zhang — said he was “shocked, angry, and ashamed” and promised the company would undertake a thorough investigation.
On Monday, the company announced it had dismissed the manager accused of rape, while two other staff members had resigned — including a human resources manager involved in handling the employee’s rape allegations.
Yet the company — which is already under pressure due to a crackdown by Chinese antitrust regulators that saw the firm fined 18.2 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) in April — continues to face questions over its handling of the case. Alibaba’s share price fell just under 2.5% on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Monday.
China’s leading technology firms have faced repeated accusations of promoting sexist work cultures in recent years. In 2018, media reported that several companies had hired women to massage and chat with their male software engineers. Alibaba has reportedly published job ads bragging about the company’s “beautiful female employees” on multiple occasions.
Zhang Ying, a lawyer based in the northwestern city of Xi’an, told Sixth Tone that Alibaba’s initial handling of the case was repressive and may have violated Chinese laws designed to protect women’s rights and interests.
“The case … reflects the disregard of these (technology) companies for women’s basic personal rights,” said Zhang. “Faced with a choice between protecting the leader and protecting the victim, Alibaba made a fatal mistake.”
However, the hotel in Jinan also deserves some of the blame for the alleged assault, Zhang added. The victim has claimed the manager entered her room after obtaining a duplicate key from hotel staff, without needing to undergo any additional security procedures.
“Without the victim’s permission, the hotel gave the alleged molester the room key, which objectively provided a convenient opportunity for him to commit the crime,” Zhang said. “From this point of view, the hotel is also responsible.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A man stands in front of the Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Aug. 2, 2021. Shen Qilai/Bloomberg via Getty Images/People Visual)