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FRIDAY, September 30, 2022
Alibaba sets up harassment hotline as rape probe nears end

Alibaba sets up harassment hotline as rape probe nears end

FRIDAY, August 13, 2021

Alibaba Group Holding will set up a hotline and create a team dedicated to investigating sexual harassment complaints, after an employee accused her manager of rape and ignited a debate about misogyny across Chinas tech industry.

The e-commerce giant launched an investigation when an Alibaba employee accused her manager of sexually assaulting her after a night of heavy drinking while on a business trip in July. That inquiry has almost concluded and its results will soon be announced, the company said on its official blog Thursday. Alibaba has meanwhile established a committee to police its workplace environment, comprised of senior female executives including Chief Financial Officer Maggie Wu and Chief People Officer Judy Tong, who was publicly censured Monday for the company's mishandling of the incident.

The employee's allegations, which went viral on China's tightly controlled internet, have reverberated across the upper echelons of Alibaba and in C-suites across much of the country. The accused Alibaba manager has been fired, two senior executives at the e-commerce giant have resigned and Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang has issued a remarkable mea culpa, calling the company's handling of the incident a "humiliation."

In a nation that's been slow to absorb lessons from the global #MeToo movement, the episode has triggered what many say is a long overdue examination of the ways Chinese women are too often treated at work: overlooked, objectified, forced to take part in male-dominated rituals like drinking with clients and brushed aside when reporting abuse. It comes at a time when much of China's corporate world, particularly the tech industry, is under intense government scrutiny on issues ranging from anti-monopoly violations to the treatment of low-wage workers.

"The best reflection is action," Alibaba said in a blogpost. "It is our shared responsibility to create a mutually respectful workplace environment."

The newly formed committee will in turn steer an independent team responsible for investigating complaints and reports related to sexual harassment and assault. The company also vowed to revise its code of conduct and improve guidelines for employee engagement with customers and partners, to help employees draw clear boundaries between work and social interaction.

The Alibaba incident has highlighted pervasive mistreatment of female workers across companies in China, where the #MeToo movement has failed to take off as widely as in Silicon Valley or elsewhere. Zhang, in a lengthy pre-dawn memo Monday, described an outpouring of emotions on Alibaba's intranet and vowed to step up protections for women across the company while addressing its failure to act.

Alibaba became the highest-profile symbol of abuses regarded as prevalent throughout Chinese businesses and at tech firms, rooted in a hard-charging environment that often prioritizes achievement over culture. The #MeToo movement first came to prominence there in 2018 when allegations against a professor at a Beijing university were published on social media. Since then, a number of allegations have been made against academics, environmentalists and journalists.

President Xi Jinping has pledged to fight workplace discrimination amid a shrinking workforce, even as the country cracks down on feminist activists and scrubs the web of sensitive #MeToo content. China bans job discrimination based on gender and stipulates the importance of equal opportunity. Yet a lack of enforcement means there're few repercussions to discriminatory practices.