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Alibaba Attempts to Ride Out Sexual Assault Storm That Is Adding to China’s Tech Sector Woes

Alibaba offices
Courtesy of alibaba group

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba said on Monday that it had fired an employee who has been accused of sexually assaulting another staff member. The move comes after state media heaped criticism on the group and adds to the woes of the Chinese tech sector.

The incident came to light on Saturday when a female employee working at grocery delivery unit Neighborhood Retail in Jinan province uploaded an 11-page document alleging that her manager and a client had sexually assaulted her at or after a dinner that involved drinking games. She also complained that the company’s managers and human resources department had failed to take her allegations seriously.

Police in Jinan have now begun an investigation which has not yet reached a conclusion. But Alibaba says that the accused manager has confessed to “intimate acts with [the woman] while she was inebriated.” That puts him in violation of company policy.

“He will be fired and never be rehired. Whether he has committed rape or indecency that violates the law will be determined by law enforcement,” said Alibaba’s group chairman and CEO in a letter that was initially circulated internally and later published on the group’s Alizila blog.

The letter also explained that the president of Neighborhood Retail Li Yonghe and Neighborhood Retail’s human resources head Xu Kun have both resigned. At group level, Alibaba’s chief people officer Judy Tong will be given a demerit in her employment records. “The human resources function did not pay enough attention and care to our people. They were rational but lacked empathy and care,” said Zhang.

The development continues a series of terrible setbacks for China’s tech industry and it elevates the #MeToo cause in the country.

State regulators across multiple ministries have used new regulations, state media and financial penalties to rein in a tech sector which China’s central government regards as having grown too fast, too large and too powerful.

Major tech firms including Alibaba and Tencent, which are also among China’s biggest media owners, have been punished for breaching rules on mergers and acquisitions, failing to fully control content on their platforms, using their dominant positions to enforce unfair terms of trade on clients and competing businesses with the effect of reducing competition, and they have been accused of mishandling user data.

In recent days, state media has attacked Tencent, for peddling “opium” by not doing enough to prevent young people from becoming addicted to its online games. Tencent, which is the world’s largest games company by revenue and holds stakes in games developers including Riot and Epic, hurriedly rushed out a response.

On Saturday, however, district prosecutors in Beijing began a civil public interest lawsuit against a Tencent subsidiary claiming that the youth mode setting on Tencent’s ubiquitous WeChat / Weixin social media platform failed to comply with existing laws intended to protect minors.

The sexual assault case at Alibaba’s Neighborhood Retail only adds to the suggestions that China’s tech companies are out of control, irresponsible and need to be brought under tighter state oversight.
“Alibaba could not offer an answer that satisfies public opinion for this ham-handed inaction,” said an editorial in the state run Global Times tabloid published over the weekend and before Monday’s actions by the group.

Regulators have previously crimped the budding online finance (fintech) divisions built up by the tech giants and in October last year halted the IPO of Alibaba’s Ant Group. More recently, regulators may also have demolished an entire business sector – online education – at the stroke of a pen. They argue that private education gives an unfair advantage to children of wealthier families and that the state alone should be responsible for education.

Zhang’s letter proffered commiserations and help to the woman concerned. It also proposed a pair of preventive measures and offered a further clue that parts of Chinese society are now turning against the country’s traditionally macho culture and paternalistic hierarchy.

“We will conduct company-wide training and investigation on the protection of employee rights and interests, including anti-sexual harassment… We will expedite the formation of an anti-sexual harassment policy to create a safe workplace for our employees that has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct,” said Zhang.

“We are staunchly opposed to the ugly forced drinking culture. Regardless of gender, whether it is a request made by a customer or a supervisor, our employees are empowered to reject it,” said Zhang.