Published: 10:32, August 18, 2021 | Updated: 18:03, August 18, 2021
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Alibaba scandal sparks widespread public debate

Sexual assault case shines spotlight on business drinking culture

Female employees at a scenic spot in Foshan, Guangdong province, learn martial arts in order to protect themselves. (ZENG LINGHUA / FOR CHINA DAILY)

A recent sexual assault scandal involving internet giant Alibaba has sparked a new round of public debate.

Discussion centers not only on removing the stigma often attached to women, but also on the deeply entrenched drinking culture among the business community.

A female Alibaba employee recently accused her manager and one of the company's clients of sexual assault.

The employee released details of the alleged incidents in an internal post, stating that she was forced to drink too much alcohol at a business dinner and was later assaulted by the pair.

She said she complained to Alibaba's human resources department, but was ignored. The employee then distributed letters in the canteen at Alibaba's headquarters in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, describing the alleged assault. The letters triggered widespread public attention.

In an 11-page post uploaded on Aug 7 to the internal message board at Alibaba, the employee recalled details of the dinner, which began like many others with copious amounts of alcohol.

"When I arrived for the meal, my manager told the client: 'Look how good I am to you. I brought you a beautiful girl'," she wrote. "I was forced to drink too much alcohol, and the last thing I remembered that night was crying while my manager lay on top of me."

On Saturday, police in Jinan, Shandong province, released a partial investigation report on their social media account, confirming the two men had committed an obscene act. Police said the investigation is continuing in order to determine whether more-serious offenses, such as rape, were committed.

Alibaba has fired a manager accused of sexual assault. The company's client, a staff member at Jinan Hualian Supermarket in Shandong, has also been fired, the supermarket said. Alibaba's chief human resources officer Tong Wenhong was given a demerit penalty for her team's negligence in dealing with the allegations.

A poster in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, states: "No to sexual harassment". (ZHAO BIN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Angry netizens

The woman's story and two similar recent cases-involving celebrities and a well-known company-have led to heated and wider public debate about protection against sexual harassment.

Kris Wu, one of the country's leading pop stars, has been arrested on suspicion of rape. Judicial authorities in Beijing said on Monday that they had approved the arrest of a suspect surnamed Wu on a previous suspicion of rape after reviewing the case in accordance with the law.

Media reports confirmed the suspect is the 30-year-old Chinese-Canadian singer and actor Wu, who was detained by police for an alleged crime on July 31.

Wu was accused by an 18-year-old student of pressuring her and other women into having sex with him.

Days after the Alibaba scandal, a female employee at Guizhou Guotai Liquor Group in Guizhou province reported sexual abuse by her male colleagues after drinking.

These reports triggered a storm on social media platforms and a public backlash against sexual harassment and sexual assault. Related topics remained on Sina Weibo's trending chats-a ranking list of the most-discussed issues, with millions of netizens taking part in the debate.

Many netizens voiced strong support for victims brave enough to tell of their experiences.

Sina Weibo user "a big apple "commented: "They are heroes. What they did not only contributed to forming public opinion to fight sexual harassment and assault, but also encouraged others who may have experienced such incidents to speak out."

Although women have gained much greater independence in recent decades in China, publicizing experiences of sexual harassment or discrimination also leaves them at risk from internet trolls.

Sun Xuemei, who launched the Girls Protection Fund, an NGO against child sexual abuse, said, "These victims are really brave, as they must contend with employers who face fewer legal risks by ignoring complaints of sexual wrongdoing than they do for firing the accused.

"The absence of comprehensive sex education in China has resulted in cognitive bias toward sexual harassment and assault. Far from being afraid of talking about sex in public, some people have even blamed the victims, questioning why they became targets."

Sun said alcohol is usually an excuse for such male offenders. "People will not adopt a tough attitude toward these offenders if the offenders were drunk. Some people may even excuse an offender by saying, 'He didn't mean to do this, the alcohol is to blame'."

Pedestrians pass Alibaba offices in Beijing. (MARK SCHIEFELBEIN / AP)

Drinking culture

The recent scandals have also reignited debate about business culture, which includes alcohol and the potential risk of sexual harassment. On social media platforms, many people have shared their experiences of being forced to drink alcohol.

Wang Fei, who works for a public relations company in Beijing, said: "Traditionally, people believe that guests who drink as much alcohol as they can are showing their appreciation to the host. This drinking culture is commonplace, especially in business scenarios. Among business partners, alcohol is considered a way to 'break the ice'."

Liu Wenli, professor of education at the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University, said: "Men still play a leading role in society, which is reflected particularly in the work culture. Ordering other people to drink shows men's power (or the power of superiors) over women (or subordinates)."

In sex-related crimes, the majority of victims are women, Liu said. "But many women dare not say 'no' to forced drinking either due to concern about destroying the relationship with their business partners or being afraid that their boss will lose face," she added.

Responding to a business culture that has always been linked with alcohol, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China's top anti-corruption agency, recently posted a notice on its website following the alleged sexual assault scandal at Alibaba, describing business drinking as "disgusting".

"In the incident, an unhealthy dynamic in a working environment, a disgusting drinking culture and a lack of transparency in reporting issues, together exposed pervasive, deeply rooted unspoken rules," the notice stated.

On Friday, the streaming site iQiyi sent an open letter to its employees, outlining its determination to fight such hidden rules in the workplace.

The letter highlighted 10 principles, including prohibiting sexual harassment through verbal comments, touching and chat messages. It said abuse or bullying in the workplace are banned. Forcing others to take part in business meals or forcing people to drink alcohol is also prohibited.

The letter stated that discrimination based on where a person comes from, their gender or ethnicity is also banned. It encouraged individuals to say "no" to bad culture or hidden rules at work. The company also urged department heads to be more responsible for ensuring that such rules are complied with.

The Atour Hotel in Jinan, Shandong province, where the alleged sexual assault on a female Alibaba employee took place. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Action taken

Workplace gender-based violence and harassment, or GBVH, occurs in various forms. In the 1990s, a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences showed that 84 percent of female workers had experienced harassment. It found that the two most common forms of harassment were unwelcome touching (70.48 percent) and sexual jokes or comments (60.36 percent).

In a recent report by Aaron Halegua, a research fellow at New York University School of Law's US-Asia Law Institute, researchers examined GBVH in workplaces in China and ways in which such disputes are handled by employers and courts.

The report was drawn from a review of more than 100 civil cases from the database of judicial decisions maintained by China's Supreme People's Court, in which the term "sexual harassment" was mentioned. Based on the court's decisions, numerous other forms of GBVH have been found.

Analysis of these cases shows that few GBVH victims seek redress through litigation, and those who do, encounter significant obstacles in realizing their rights guaranteed under Chinese law. These hurdles include an unclear definition of sexual harassment, a high burden of proof and an emphasis on physical evidence.

For at least two decades, China has made determined efforts to combat GBVH and gender-based employment discrimination. For example, in 2007, the Employment Promotion Law called for the equal treatment of women in employment and prohibited discrimination against them.

In 2012, an employment-specific provision was issued as part of the Special Regulation on the Labor Protection of Female Employees, which demanded equality, banned discrimination, and prohibited sexual harassment. Victims were given the right to file a complaint against an alleged harasser with their employer, the relevant administrative agency, or in court.

The Atour Hotel in Jinan, Shandong province, where the alleged sexual assault on a female Alibaba employee took place. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

On Jan 1, China's Civil Code took effect. In the new law, the term "victim" has a wider definition and is no longer limited to women. The law states that employers have specific and clear obligations to be proactive in preventing sexual harassment, must implement procedures for handling complaints, and take disciplinary action where appropriate.

Shen Jianpeng, a professor of law at Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing, said: "The new law is a big step forward, but it remains to be seen exactly how these requirements will be interpreted and enforced. In particular, it is not clear whether or how employers can be held liable for failing to meet their obligations."

In the report by Halegua, researchers give recommendations, which include improving the legislative framework, strengthening government monitoring and enforcement, and expanding legal and other services for victims.

The report suggests that Chinese employers establish policies and a mechanism to address GBVH. It said they should also conduct workplace training and prevention initiatives by using a handbook on gender equality that includes specific examples of how sexual harassment might occur in the workplace and who potential victims might be.

Liu, from Beijing Normal University, said the culture of achieving business goals through forced drinking should be abandoned. She believes that a fundamental way to prevent sexual harassment or assault is to conduct comprehensive sex education as early as possible.

"Such education will teach people to respect each other from childhood. Girls will learn about self-protection, while boys will have an awareness of gender equality. Before having close contact with others, girls and boys know that permission should be gained first.

"More important, sex education will teach people to voice their consent and safeguard their legal rights, particularly when they face the authorities," Liu said.