At an employee dinner, women were asked to rate the attractiveness of the men at the table. During a team-building exercise session, a woman was pressured to push her male co-worker in front of her co-workers. Top executives have exchanged lewd comments about male malice at corporate events and online.
E-commerce giant Alibaba, one of China’s most globalized internet companies, regularly celebrates the number of women in its senior ranks. In 2018, the company’s billionaire co-founder, Jack Ma, told a conference in Geneva that one key to Alibaba’s success was that 49% of its employees were women.
But the message of women’s empowerment is now being called into question after an Alibaba employee accused her boss of raping her after an alcoholic business dinner. The woman, who has been identified by police and lawyers only by her last name, Zhou, said her complaints were dismissed by bosses and human resources. In the end, she had to scream about the incident in the company cafeteria last month.
“A male executive of Ali raped a female subordinate, and no one in the company pursued it,” shouted Ms. Zhou, according to a video posted on the internet.
Ms. Zhou’s case has caused an uproar within the company and across China’s tech scene. Alibaba fired the man accused of rape, said it would establish a policy against sexual harassment and declared it “resolutely opposed to the ugly culture of forced drinking”. However, former Alibaba employees say the problems are much deeper than the company has admitted.
Interviews with nine former employees show that conventional sexism is pervasive at Alibaba. They describe a work environment in which women feel shame and belittled during team building and other activities the company has incorporated into its culture, a striking difference from with the inclusive image that Alibaba has tried to build.
The police investigation into Ms. Chu’s case is underway. Alibaba seems to be trying to keep discussions on the matter private. The company recently fired 10 employees for leaking information about the incident, according to two people familiar with the matter. Most of the former employees who spoke to The New York Times asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation.
In a statement to The Times, Alibaba said creating a safe and supportive workplace is its top priority.
“When we face difficulties, we believe in taking responsibility and holding ourselves accountable,” the statement said.
Alibaba made immediate changes to how it handles issues of workplace culture and misconduct after Ms. Zhou’s case came to light, the statement said. After examining its reporting policies and procedures, the company found “certain areas that do not meet our standards,” the statement said.
The statement did not mention any specific allegations made by former employees who spoke to The Times.
Many parts of Alibaba use games and other ice-breaking activities to make co-workers feel comfortable with each other. Kiki Qian joined the company in 2017. Her team greeted her with a charade. When she lost, she said, she was punished for being forced to “fly airplanes,” as her colleagues called them. The stunt involved chaining a male colleague as he sat in an office chair. The colleague then lay back on the chair, causing Ms. Qian to fall on top of him, facing him first.
Qian, 28, said in a phone interview while carrying out the punishment, I realized it can be a bit perverted.
On a separate occasion, Ms. Qian said she saw a woman burst into tears after being pressured to jump into the arms of a male colleague during a team game.
Other former Alibaba employees said the ice-breaking ritual included uncomfortable questions about their sexual histories. One former employee said that she and other women at a group dinner were asked to rank their male colleagues by attractiveness. Another said she felt humiliated during a game where staff were asked to touch each other’s shoulders, backs and thighs.
After Ms. Qian told her boss that she would no longer participate in such activities, she made it clear that she would never advance at Alibaba. In 2018, she quit her job.
None of the women who spoke to The Times thought to complain to HR about their ice-breaking experience. They said they doubted their complaint would be taken seriously.
“There’s no way you can complain about this; This is a tradition in Ali,” Ms. Qian said. “If you complain, people will think you have the problem.”
Right from the early years of its establishment, Alibaba has tried to create a working environment that is familiar to young people. The employees introduced each other using the company’s nickname. Managers show interest in employees’ personal and family lives.
But as the company has grown into a giant corporation with more than a quarter of a million employees, customs that once seemed playful now seem less innocent. In an effort to promote closeness and camaraderie, Alibaba has allowed raw, erotic talk to emerge in professional and sometimes highly visible settings.
Ma, the co-founder, made the point. Every year on May 10, dozens of Alibaba employees and their spouses or partners participate in a mock group wedding ceremony at the company’s “Ali Day” celebration. At the 2018 event, Mr. Ma joked on stage about how Alibaba’s grueling work hours affected employees’ sex lives.
“I heard it was seven times a day for some people before joining Alibaba, but not even once in the seven days after,” he said. “This is a big broblem.”
Mr. Ma went further with the riff at next year’s ceremony.
“At work, we emphasize the 996 spirit,” he said, referring to the common practice at Chinese internet companies, working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
“In life, we need 669,” Mr. Ma said. “Six days, six times.” The word “ripe” in Mandarin is pronounced like the word “long”. The crowd cheered and clapped.
Alibaba shared the comments, with a winking emoji, on its official account on Weibo, China’s social media platform. Wang Shuai, the company’s public relations manager, wrote on Weibo that Mr. Ma’s comments reminded him of how good youth is. His posts include vulgar references to his anatomy.
Alibaba also provides employees with a handbook on promoting the spirit of “Alibaba slang”. Some entries contain sexual connotations. One called on employees to be “aggressive and long-lasting”.
Feng Yuan, a prominent feminist in China, said the type of behavior described at Alibaba can create conditions where bullying and harassment are tolerated and quietly promoted.
“In male-dominated companies, hierarchical power structures and toxic masculinity become stronger over time,” says Ms. Feng. “They become hotspots for sexual harassment and violence.”
Last month, Ms. Zhou shared her rape allegation on Alibaba’s internal website. According to her account of events, her boss said to a male customer who was also present at an alcoholic business dinner, “Look how good I am to you; I have brought you a beauty,” Mrs. Chu alludes to.
Binge meals have long been common in Chinese businesses, where refusing to drink with a boss can be seen as insulting. Three days after Ms. Zhou reported the incident to Alibaba, her boss still hasn’t been fired, she wrote in her account. She was told that this was not considered because of her reputation.
“This ridiculous logic,” she wrote. “Who are they protecting?”
Elsie Chen contribution reports, and Albee Zhang and Claire Fu Contributing research.