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Alibaba fires manager accused of sexually assaulting colleague

Chinese netizens and State media unleash as it emerges web giant lacks formal sexual harassment policy

Chinese tech giant Alibaba has terminated the employment of a manager accused of sexually assaulting a female colleague.

News of the alleged assault came to light on Weibo, China's analogue for Twitter, when screenshots of a post to Alibaba's intranet appeared. The Register has seen the post and it is harrowing: it details the experience of a female employee in one of Alibaba's grocery businesses who felt compelled to attend a business trip, and recounted that she was then forced to drink with male colleagues and, once intoxicated, was sexually harassed by clients in a karaoke bar – while her male managers looked on and did nothing.

The author alleges managers later sexually assaulted her on several occasions in her hotel room, and that when she reported the attacks, Alibaba staffers asked for video evidence before they would consider an investigation.

No investigation commenced, and the woman felt she had no alternative but to share her story on the company intranet.

The post circulated quickly beyond Alibaba, and generated much criticism of the managers involved and Alibaba's corporate culture.

On Monday, Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang acknowledged the incident with an intranet post of his own that was also widely copied and shared outside Alibaba, then posted to Alibaba's blog. Zhang announced the manager accused of sexual assault has been fired and will never be re-hired, said other staff alleged to be involved in the assault have been suspended pending an investigation, and apologised for the incident and Alibaba's corporate culture.

Alibaba's head of HR has been reprimanded, and two managers resigned over their lack of response to the initial complaint. The company has promised to develop and deploy sexual harassment and misconduct policies.

Chinese State media has strongly criticised Alibaba for not taking responsibility for the matter, and not using its wealth to create a decent corporate culture.

The scandal has tapped two current movements in Chinese culture.

One is a growing #MeToo-like movement that seeks to call out, and change, institutional sexism that makes it hard to report and prosecute sexual assault in China. That movement became prominent in recent weeks after a pop star was detained after accusations he pressured women into sex.

The other is the ongoing government crackdown on big tech, which Beijing sees as callously indifferent to Chinese values and unhelpfully focused on profit. Chinese workers are also pushing back against the workplace culture of big tech, which has for years been happy for staff to work from nine in the morning to nine at night, six days a week – the so-called "996" code. It was seldom set in stone, but was seen as a sign of true commitment and became a cultural touchstone of China's tech industry. As was attending business trips one would rather avoid.

Posts seen by The Register suggest the individual fired by Alibaba recently sought a job at another tech firm, and made it through a first round of interviews.

It's too early to say if this incident will have the same impact in China as the #MeToo movement in the West.

But Alibaba, and China's other tech giants, are certainly no longer considered exemplars of China's rapid development and increasing sophistication. ®

Advice on reporting sexual assault can be found here for UK readers, here for US readers and here for Australian readers.

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