The forerunners of China’s internet industry have long held up their superior work cultures and corporate values as key to becoming the behemoth businesses they are today.
In these companies, there are no courtesy titles. The lowest-level employees can address the founders as if they are a colleague in the next cubicle over. ByteDance’s Zhang Yiming likes to be called “Classmate Yiming,” Tencent’s Ma Huateng goes by his English name Pony Ma, and at Alibaba, Jack Ma uses the martial arts-novel inspired nickname Feng Qingyang.
Employees are well compensated in exchange for working extremely long hours. Ambitious graduates flock to the companies, which they see as the best possible career moves. Countless startups have imitated them.
But as the growth of these companies has slowed and their halos have dimmed, people have begun to reflect on the problems that lie behind their rapid expansion.
For Alibaba, whose products include ecommerce platforms Taobao and Tmall, its reputation took its biggest blow yet earlier this month.
In the evening of August 7, a female employee of Alibaba, later identified by police as having the family name Zhou, wrote an essay on the company’s internal staff platform in which she recounted her experience of being raped by her supervisor and sexually assaulted by a business partner of the company during a work trip.
The post was a final resort for Zhou. She wrote that she had filed a report with the police as soon as possible after the incident, but that a few days later, when she demanded that the company deal with the male employee involved, she was faced with feet-dragging and indifference. To make her voice heard, she handed out flyers and hung up a banner in the company cafeteria, only to be hauled out by more than a dozen security guards. Zhou’s post, in which she detailed her experiences since the incident happened late July, was rapidly shared across the web. It wasn’t long before #Alibaba became the top trending hashtag on social site Weibo.
Even Alibaba’s veteran employees, PR associates, and HR staff — who all are steeped in the company’s corporate culture and usually spare no effort to safeguard its reputation — broke their silence and publicly expressed their disappointment and anger. They were surprised not just at what had happened but also at how the company whose founder famously said “customers first, employees second, shareholders third” had mishandled a colleague’s complaints.
“Having worked day and night at Alibaba for more than a decade, this is the first time I’ve felt shaken like this,” a veteran employee wrote on social media. Another middle manager expressed his indignation about the scandal with phrases such as “tremendously shameful,” “beyond comprehension,” and “not the behavior of a normal person.”
“I despise myself. I feel completely useless,” a publicist for Alibaba wrote on social media, “Why do I work for this company? Why am I so angry?” He added that he doesn’t dare to change his profile photo on Alibaba’s own professional messaging tool DingTalk to #MeToo or even express his dissatisfaction with the company on his personal WeChat feed, let alone quit his job. All he feels capable of doing is removing the company’s name from his social media profiles.
“Who’d have thought that an existence envied by so many people could be this dark? I feel so cold, so disappointed, so helpless, angry, and confused,” an intern who’d just joined Alibaba said.
At 3 a.m. on August 8, a middle manager at Tmall said in a group chat on DingTalk, “I’m so angry I can’t sleep.” Just like him, countless former believers have lost their faith in Alibaba. It was a night of deep shame for the company’s 250,000 or so current employees and many more former staff members.
A Belated Investigation
About 36 hours after Zhou’s post set China’s internet aflame, Alibaba published the results of its investigation. It said the incident had occurred on July 27. That evening, a dinner was held at a restaurant in Jinan, the capital of eastern China’s Shandong province, with four employees of Jinan Hualian Supermarket and four Alibaba employees. Among them were Zhou and her supervisor, surnamed Wang, who both work at Taoxianda, Alibaba’s online grocery platform that cooperates with Jinan Hualian. (In her essay on Alibaba’s internal staff platform, Zhou identified Wang by his full name.)
Zhou, who graduated in 2016, joined Alibaba last year. The colleague she has accused, Wang, joined Alibaba in 2015. Since he began working for Taoxianda in October last year, he successively served as head of the Southwest China Region and the North China Region. A look at Wang’s resume shows his ascension through the company ranks was relatively slow: after nearly six years at Alibaba, his rank was only P7 — denoting, in Alibaba’s HR system, that he was the lowest-level middle manager.
According to Zhou’s own recount of events that night, she was persuaded to drink for the sake of her job, which “made it impossible to refuse.” Jinan police said on August 14 that witnesses denied Zhou was pressured to partake. Though, as many women wrote on social media in response to that finding, such coercion need not be explicit for it to feel inescapable.
At the table, Zhang, a male employee of Jinan Hualian, kissed and groped Zhou, she wrote. Surveillance footage confirms that she was dragged while seemingly drunk to an unoccupied room in the restaurant. Zhou wrote that Wang did nothing to stop Zhang — who she also identified by his full name — from assaulting her.
After Zhou had completely passed out from drinking, Wang and a female employer of Jinan Hualian surnamed Chen took her back to her hotel room. Wang then left with Chen before returning to the hotel by himself. He obtained a key card to Zhou’s room at the front desk and entered her room a total of three additional times throughout the night, the longest time lasting over 20 minutes.
According to Jinan police, the second time Wang entered Zhou’s room, he “forcibly molested” her. He had ordered condoms online but did not wait for them to arrive. The third time he entered was when a female colleague of Zhou’s video called Wang from Hangzhou, where Alibaba’s headquarters are located, and said she was concerned about Zhou’s wellbeing. Wang went into Zhou’s room to show her she was already asleep. The fourth time, he entered to retrieve his umbrella.
Part of the scrutiny has fallen on the hotel for giving Wang a keycard to Zhou’s room so he could enter the room a second time. The police report said Wang had Zhou’s ID card and that the hotel’s front desk called Zhou for approval before handing over the keycard. Social media users pointed out Zhou was likely in no condition to approve anything, seeing as half an hour earlier she hadn’t been able to remember her own room number when returning from the dinner.
Included in the police report, but unmentioned in Zhou’s essay, is that the next morning, at 7:14 a.m., Zhou contacted Jinan Hualian’s Zhang and told him her room number. Zhang arrived 45 minutes later with an unopened pack of condoms, knocked on her door, and was let into the room. There, he also “forcibly molested” Zhou. He left at 9:35 a.m., taking with him her underwear, but leaving the unopened condoms in the room. At 12:34 p.m., Zhou called the police.
According to her account, Zhou woke up completely naked that morning, discovered an opened condom wrapper, and could not find her underwear. She wrote that she immediately called the police, who consulted surveillance footage and confirmed that Wang had entered her room. That afternoon, she went through a physical examination, before accompanying the police to the scene of the crime to collect evidence.
Zhou wrote that Wang had initially admitted to her over the phone that he’d had sex with her but changed his story during his 24-hour detention and interrogation, telling the police that she was the one who’d initiated everything. Police said on August 14 that they had detained Wang and Zhang on the charge of forcible molestation but that there was no evidence of rape, which in China is defined as involving penile-genital penetration. On August 25, Zhang was officially arrested. Wang remains under investigation.