For years, as Alibaba turned from a scrappy Chinese start-up into an e-commerce behemoth, some of its business units welcomed new employees with an ice-breaking ceremony that alarmed many of those who endured it.
Fresh hires were required to answer deeply personal questions in front of their colleagues, according to former employees: about their first loves, their first kiss and their first sexual encounters. The questions were phrased in ways that aren’t printable in this newspaper, they said.
The Chinese technology giant has denied such claims. But last weekend, a female employee alleged on the company’s internal website that she had been sexually assaulted by a company client then raped by her manager — and the disclosure unleashed a slew of stories about ice-breaking activities. Former employees said online that they, too, had gone through them.
And in a letter to management signed over the weekend by more than 6,000 Alibaba workers, employees urged the company to forbid sexual remarks and games in ice-breaking and other business events. (Alibaba has said it fired the employee accused of rape and will take other steps to stop sexual misconduct. It did not respond to requests for comment.)
The allegations against Alibaba may have shocked the Chinese technology industry and the public, but it shouldn’t have surprised them.
The male-dominated sector has long objectified women, blamed the victims and normalized sexual violence. Women who dare to speak out about sexual harassment and violence are called troublemakers or worse.
Three years ago, a student at the University of Minnesota alleged that Richard Liu, the billionaire founder of one of China’s largest companies, JD.com, had raped her after an alcohol-soaked business meal. After Mr. Liu denied the allegations and the police declined to press charges, the Chinese internet and the tech industry took his side and called her a gold digger, among other misogynistic slurs.
Often, public allegations simply go unaddressed. An employee for Didi, the ride-hailing company, was fired for poor performance last year after she complained to the company’s operations in Jiangsu Province that she was physically and sexually assaulted after she was forced to binge drink at a business meal. She later posted on social media photos of her badly bruised face and a doctor’s diagnosis. Didi didn’t respond to questions about whether it had investigated her allegations, back then or when asked again for comment this week.
Incidents like the one at Alibaba happen throughout the industry, one female tech investor said. She asked for anonymity because she worried that entrepreneurs, some of whom make dirty jokes in big chat groups, will think she is too judgmental and will stop trusting her.
The industry has toned down some of its most blatant and explicit behavior. For example, more recently hired Alibaba employees told me that they didn’t have to answer personal questions at their ice-breaking ceremonies.
And if society doesn’t force them to change, the Communist Party will. Amid a government crackdown on the powers of Big Tech, People’s Daily, the party’s official newspaper, warned on social media that nothing “can be too big to fail.”
But the Chinese technology industry’s toxic culture is so ingrained that it won’t be easy to stamp out.
Not so long ago, Chinese tech companies invited popular Japanese porn stars to their events to drum up publicity. Qihoo 360, a cybersecurity company, invited a Japanese porn star to dance with its programmers in 2014, while some of its female employees wore revealing outfits.
A business unit at China’s other internet giant, Tencent, made its female employees at a 2017 event kneel and use their mouths to open water bottles that male colleagues clutched in their crotches. Tencent later apologized.
Over the years, the search giant Baidu, the smartphone maker Xiaomi and JD.com have had Victoria Secret-style lingerie fashion shows at their annual celebrations. Sometimes the models were their female employees.
At the time, few people, if anybody, condemned their behavior. Some programmers reacted by asking whether those companies were hiring.
Women everywhere face some of the same challenges. But in China’s technology industry, these attitudes have been passed down from internet giants like Alibaba to alumni who now lead start-ups big and small.
Cheng Wei, founder of Didi and a former Alibaba executive, borrowed much of his management style from the e-commerce giant, which he called his true alma mater. One of Didi’s earliest hires told a magazine that a few new employees were shocked by how far its ice-breaking ceremony could go, according to a flattering profile in 2016. The employee said she felt closer to her colleagues after learning about their personal details.
A former employee who asked for anonymity said she was too scared not to answer those questions for fear of antagonizing her co-workers and her manager.
Even punishments at tech companies can be sexual in nature. Mr. Cheng has said he punished one male executive by ordering the executive to “run naked.” A former Didi executive explained that others, too, were similarly told to run around the company campus in its early years, though men were allowed to wear their underwear and women could wear paper clothes over their undergarments.
The executive and other employees said the practice went away in recent years.
The Alibaba crisis also triggered discussions about two misogynistic rituals at Chinese business meals: forced drinking and women’s company.
Young women can be considered accessories at business meals. “A meal without girls is not a meal,” read the headline of a 2017 column in the Chinese edition of GQ, accompanied by an illustration of naked women in soup bowls.
In the allegations she posted on the internal Alibaba website, the female employee said her manager had told their clients at dinner: “Look how good I am to you, I brought you a beauty.”
The Alibaba client who she alleged had sexually assaulted her denied that he had done anything inappropriate. “It was a regular meal,” the client told a Beijing newspaper. “I only hugged and cuddled her. Nothing else.” (His company said he had been fired for misconduct and that he was cooperating with a police investigation.)
The Alibaba employee wrote that her nightmare began after she was forced to drink too much.
Forced drinking plays an important and a problematic role in China’s business culture. It can serve as a power play that puts women and the junior employees at a disadvantage. Refusing to drink with a superior is considered offensive.
At a business dinner last year, a bank manager slapped a new employee after he rejected the manager’s repeated orders to replace his soft drinks with alcohol. The bank later disciplined the manager.
In their appeal for action over the weekend, Alibaba employees urged the company to forbid forced drinking and to stop linking alcohol with business. The company stopped short of forbidding it, saying it supports the right of its employees to reject drinking requests.
Alibaba said it had fired the manager accused of rape and pushed out two senior managers who ignored the woman’s pleas. Still, its response has left many people unhappy.
Wang Shuai, Alibaba’s public relations chief, reposted a post he said a colleague had written. The post complained that some people simply believed in rumors and assumed the worst of Alibaba. People who are too critical of the company, the post said bluntly, could go away.
In response, members of the public pointed to episodes that they said indicated problems at the top.
A widely circulated video showed that Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire founder, made a sex joke when he was hosting a group wedding ceremony — an annual event for the company that typically draws headlines — for his employees in 2019. “In work, we want the 996 spirit,” he said, referring to the punishing work schedule of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. “In life, we want 669,” he said. “Six days, six times. The key is long-lasting.”
He played with the pronunciation of the word “nine,” which sounds like the word for “long-lasting.” His audience cheered and applauded.