China’s Boozy Work Culture Fuels #MeToo Outcry at Alibaba, Didi
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Erine joined the Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Global Inc. in 2020, she says, attracted by the opportunity to work for one of the world’s hottest tech companies. That July she had one of her first assignments in a small town—a client meeting that ended with a banquet, the food washed down with many bottles of red wine and the Chinese liquor called baijiu.
That wasn’t unusual: Chinese business dinners often involve lots of alcohol, not unlike the boozy work meetings of 1960s New York featured in Mad Men. Erine, now 33, was the only woman at the table, and she says she felt obligated to join the heavy drinking and keep going when the party moved to another restaurant. The next thing she says she remembers is the client groping her in the back seat of a car, then again in her hotel room. Later, on social media, she posted screenshots of a swollen left eye and mouth—injuries sustained when the client sexually assaulted her, she says.
Two days after the alleged incident, Erine reported the case to the police, who dropped the investigation a month later, and a prosecutor’s report found no medical evidence to prove “forced indecency,” a term that can encompass sexual assault in China. Erine began publicizing her story on social media but got little attention.
Then, in August of this year, an Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. employee publicly accused her manager of sexual harassment, also after a night of heavy drinking. Alibaba fired the accused manager, and two senior executives resigned over their handling of the situation. As that incident went viral, Erine began sharing her ordeal again on China’s biggest microblogging website, Weibo. This time social media users seized on her account, with hundreds following her profile and reposting her updates.
The Alibaba case is shining a spotlight on the experiences of women such as Erine. It’s triggered a reckoning for a corporate culture built around work-related drinking and schmoozing, and it’s put unprecedented pressure on companies to address abusive behaviors that can arise from them. State-controlled media have unleashed a torrent of criticism linking harassment of female employees to corporate drinking policies, and officials in Beijing are paying more attention to these issues as part of President Xi Jinping’s sweeping moral push to clean up everything whether perceived profiteering in after-school tutoring or the corruption of youth by online gaming. Alibaba, online portal Sina, and IQiyi—China’s version of Netflix—have in recent weeks introduced stricter policies to deter excessive drinking at work events and curb sexual harassment.
It could take years for change to occur broadly, but it’s a pivotal moment for a nation that saw limited impact from the #MeToo movement, which exploded elsewhere in 2017. “Liquor table culture has become a fig leaf for workplace bullying, turning the table into a place where the upper ranks can use their power to bully others, and even trigger bad incidents of illegal crimes,” the state-run China News Service wrote in an August commentary.
Didi didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on Erine’s account and its policies on drinking and harassment. The local police and government in the city of Xinghua, where Erine reported her case, also didn’t respond to inquiries.
Erine, who asked to be identified only by the English name she sometimes uses when doing business because she’s afraid of retribution, showed Bloomberg News documents, including the police report, the local prosecutor’s report, and a hospital report that described the injuries she showed in the online photos. Bloomberg News wasn’t able to independently reach the client she accused, and messages to a WeChat account that Erine said belonged to the client went unanswered. Erine also provided Bloomberg News with a recording of a conversation that she says took place between her and the client at the police station. In the recording, which Bloomberg News couldn’t independently verify, the client appears to deny wrongdoing, saying Erine fell and he carried her back to her hotel.
After the Alibaba case went viral, the Central Inspection and Disciplinary Committee, the government’s anticorruption body, criticized the company by saying it had a bad work culture. Alibaba didn’t at the time respond directly to those comments. But, in August, it began an internal probe into the female worker’s account. The company later publicly reprimanded its head of human resources, set up a hotline for sexual-harassment complaints, and created a high-level committee to resolve future disputes.
“We are staunchly opposed to the ugly forced drinking culture,” Alibaba Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang said in an internal memo in August. “Regardless of gender, whether it is a request made by a customer or a supervisor, our employees are empowered to reject it.”
Although curbs on excessive work-related drinking have been part of many Western companies’ codes of conduct for years, Chinese companies have until recently taken a different approach. Employers often host events where managers pressure lower-level workers to drink as part of a tradition of quanjiu—forced drinking—wrote Nie Huihua, a professor at Renmin University of China’s School of Economics, in an August article for Chinese media group Caixin Global. But since the Alibaba allegations hit the headlines, women have come together on social media to call out the sexism they say is endemic to China’s business world and particularly to its tech industry. It can consist of everything from hazing rituals, during which some have been asked to simulate sex acts, to job ads that use women as bait to lure male workers. Much of that harassment takes place at events where there is heavy drinking, the women say.
Tech companies have been among the first to respond. A spokesman at Sina Corp. in Beijing, which controls Weibo, says it added new clauses against sexual harassment when it recently issued employee guidelines on medical benefits and other subjects. And IQiyi Inc. on Aug. 13 told staff it had updated workplace guidelines to ban sexual harassment, forced drinking, and other types of workplace bullying, local press reported. A spokesman at IQiyi declined to comment.
Management at conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group Co. held a meeting to announce new policies days after news broke about the Alibaba episode, saying that female workers shouldn’t be required to accompany clients for drinks and male and female employees shouldn’t go on business trips together, according to a person familiar with the matter. The aim was to avoid scandals even though the company doesn’t have a forced drinking culture, the person says. Dalian Wanda didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Around the same time, a female employee at Guizhou Guotai Liquor Group alleged sexual abuse by her male colleagues after drinking, state-run China Daily reported. The company in August put out a statement saying it was “shocked” by the scandal, and though it hadn’t received information from the police, it considered the subject important and would comply with any investigation.
Still, change is unlikely to happen overnight. Emily, 32, a former marketing professional at a tech company in Shenzhen who asked not to be identified discussing work life, says clients pressured her to drink, even though she made it clear she wasn’t a drinker. Internal culture wasn’t much better, and her married manager asked her out on a date, she says. After she said no, Emily says she was sidelined at work, and the company eventually didn’t renew her contract, citing poor performance. When job hunting, one would-be employer asked how good she was at drinking, and another commented on her appearance to her, she says.
Prosecutors dropped charges against the former Alibaba manager who was accused of harassment in early September, saying they couldn’t prove that his behavior amounted to a criminal offense. Also in September a court in Beijing dismissed a claim by a former intern at China’s state television broadcaster who said a popular TV host sexually harassed her in 2014. The court said the claim lacked evidence, and the TV host denied the accusation, which was brought in a civil suit. The woman said she would appeal, and though her own social media accounts were suspended, people defended her online. “Legal liability has not served as enough of a deterrent, but social media has changed the game in a way, because it gives power to start a viral campaign to make the world aware,” says Bonnie Levine of Atlanta-based employment law firm Ogletree Deakins, who advises multinationals operating in China.
Nonetheless, many of the women who publicize their cases get support online, but they also often face sharp criticism. The government has so far allowed critiques in the state-run press and tolerated discussion on closely censored social media platforms. A new civil code that took effect in January pushes the matter further, requiring employers to take measures to prevent sexual harassment and investigate allegations. The rules leave uncertain whether companies are responsible for what happens at locations where businesses entertain clients, but they suggest the culture is shifting. “The Alibaba case has shown, in terms of public opinion, people think that this does matter and things that happen outside the workplace should be treated as sexual harassment,” says Matthew Durham, an employment lawyer with the Gall law firm in Hong Kong.
Erine, the woman who made the allegations against the Didi client, says she left the company three months after the alleged assault and is still out of work. Soon after police dropped the investigation, her boss started frequently asking her to go on business trips alone with him and would suggest meetings in his hotel room, she says. When reached by phone, the manager declined to comment and referred questions about Erine’s account to Didi. Didi didn’t comment and didn’t respond to a request to make the manager available for comment.
Erine now streams almost every day on Weibo about her experiences. She’s promised followers she’ll keep speaking out unless someone forcibly stops her. “Drinking culture itself isn’t ugly. What’s ugly is that the culture now bears the stamp of work,” she says in an interview. “They are inseparable from each other.” —With Shirley Zhao, Coco Liu, and Claire Che
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