A sexual assault scandal at Alibaba rocked the Chinese tech industry this weekend. Now, executives at the country’s leading tech companies face tough questions about toxic and misogynistic cultures in their businesses. The news comes as feminist movements are slowly growing in strength after Beijing suppressed the #MeToo movement.

The scandal began on Saturday after a female Alibaba employee published a harrowing testimony about an alleged sexual assault on social media.

“I was forced to go on a business trip by a male supervisor,” she wrote. “After getting drunk, I was touched by his male client at the table. He touched my breasts, legs and private parts, after which I was taken to another private room, where I was molested. That night, the male supervisor carried a condom and entered my room four times and raped me!!!”

Subsequently, the Chinese ecommerce giant announced it had fired the supervisor in question, Wang Chengwen, and the disciplined other employees.

The employees 11-page essay highlights the toxic work culture present in China, especially in the male-dominated tech industry. The unidentified employee, who works at Taoxianda, Alibaba’s fresh food delivery service, claimed she had reported the incident to senior managers on 2 August. However, they didn’t take any action.

Desperate to get her story heard, she decided to publicise details about the sexual assault. She describes how she woke up the next morning, naked in her bed in her hotel room. The employee claims she vaguely remembered Wang kissing and touching her the night before in her room. She only found out about the details of the incident upon watching the hotel’s security footage, allegedly showing how her supervisor entered her room four times.

Turning point or empty promises?

The manager has since admitted to “intimate acts” with his inebriated female employee, according to an internal letter sent by Alibaba’s CEO Daniel Zhang to his employees. The memo added that Wang had been fired and would “never be rehired.”

Zhang said that – while the police in Jinan were still investigating the incident – Alibaba had decided to penalise the manager and other staff members after it “gained clarity on some critical facts on the handling of the incident.”

Alibaba said two employees have since resigned: Li Yonghe, the head of a business unit that includes Alibaba’s food delivery business, alongside the division’s human resources chief Xu Kun.

“The incident is a humiliation for all Aliren (Alibaba employees),” Zhang added, saying it reflected “tremendous sadness for the challenges in Alibaba’s culture.”

“We must rebuild and we must change. Change is only possible if everyone takes individual action, but it must start at the top. It starts with me. Please wait and watch,” Zhang noted.

In addition, Zhang pledged to set up a reporting channel for employees who feel their rights have been violated and carry out companywide training regarding employee rights, including issues concerning sexual assault.

Separately, it appears that Wang was trying to switch jobs before the case became public over the weekend. Wang had apparently applied for a job at ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, and had passed the first round of interviews, according to TechNode.

On Monday, ByteDance issued a statement, saying it had terminated the recruitment process for Wang, adding that it was not aware of the charges prior to the hiring process.

#MeToo’s piecemeal impact in China

The publication of the employee’s essay once again sparked a debate about China’s #MeToo movement. Especially as this case comes a mere few weeks after the Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu was detained on suspicion of sexual assault.

Last month, 18-year-old student Du Meizhu said Wu had lured her into having sex after getting her drunk. Since then, more than 20 women have come out and accused the international pop star of sexual improprieties.

Since the public accusation, more than a dozen brands, including Porsche and Louis Vuitton, cut ties with Wu as their brand ambassador.

Wu’s case combined China’s recent crackdown on the country’s intense fan culture with the subtle impact of the global #MeToo movement. Now, Alibaba’s scandal has further fanned that flame.

Ever since the feminist movement took off globally, women in China also began speaking out about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment at work and school.

On January 1, 2018, Luo Qianqian posted an online denunciation detailing how she was assaulted by her PhD supervisor while studying in Beijing. She signed the post using the Mandarin equivalent of the #MeToo hashtag.

This sparked a torrent of online support of other women who also spoke up and shared their stories. Following Luo’s recount, another woman made rape allegations against ecommerce mogul Richard Liu, the CEO of JD.com, after which she was initially “slut-shamed” by many netizens, the New York Times reported.

Liu maintained the interaction was consensual and prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to charge him. A civil suit against Liu is continuing.

Yet, recent developments indicate that feminist movements may be having an incremental impact. In a landmark case, China recently made it possible for women to file civil sexual harassment complaints. Earlier this year, a plaintiff won one of the country’s first sexual harassment civil suits against a colleague.

Nevertheless, online discussions mentioning #MeToo have been met with aggressive censorship and women who openly protest against sexism in China risk being arrested. This recalls the notable case of the Feminist Five, a group of five Chinese women who were detained in Beijing in 2015 for planning protests against sexual assault and sexual harassment on public transportation.

China’s toxic tech industry

The female Alibaba employee claims that she was introduced to her supervisor’s business partners with the following sentence: “Look how kind I am. I brought you guys a beauty.”

Many online discussions zeroed in on this alleged joke, saying that it demonstrated how the tech industry continues to regard women as sexual objects.

A separate report from 2015 points out that Chinese tech firms would regularly hire female “motivators” to boost morale among largely male coders and programmers.

In another disturbing incident, footage from 2017 showed a group of female Tencent employees using their teeth to open bottles of champagne placed between the legs of male colleagues at a company New Year’s Eve party. Tencent apologised for the video after it went viral, claiming that its managers had failed to properly oversee the planning of the event.

In 2018, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found that major technology companies, including Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, had widely used “gender discriminatory job advertisements”, which said men were preferred or specifically barred women applicants.

Some adverts even promised candidates they would work with “beautiful girls” and “goddesses”, HRW said in its report based on an analysis of 36,000 job posts between 2013 and 2018.

Last year, Airbnb launched an investigation after female employees in China complained to US management about alleged misconduct by senior executives, including allegedly scoring female employees on their looks.

Many netizens particularly slammed the corporate drinking culture in China, which frequently leads to senior male employees or clients pushing younger female workers to drink excessively when signing contracts or as a show of respect.

In his letter to all Alibaba employees, Zhang noted that the company “staunchly opposed to the ugly forced drinking culture” and that employees were empowered to reject drinking requests, whether they were from clients or supervisors.

However, many women pointed out on social media that, in most cases, this was not a feasible option. Moreover, women are still frequently blamed for the “misfortunes” that they encounter when being drunk.

“He got drunk: People often use this phrase as an excuse for the bad things he did. She got drunk: People often use this phrase as a justification for the bad things that happened to her,” a female blogger wrote on Weibo, pointing out the problem.

Forcible indecency not deemed a crime

On September 9 authorities in Jinan, in Shandong province, found that the Wang had committed forcible indecency, which was not considered a crime. He was instead ordered to be detained for 15 days, in accordance with article 44 of the administrative Public Security Management Punishment Law.