Accident or Inevitable?
There were many coinciding factors surrounding Zhou’s assault. The first is that it occurred in Jinan, one of the provincial capitals where corporate drinking culture is most prevalent. The second is that the success of the Taoxianda platform depends on the cooperation of offline supermarkets, which put a traditional retailer like Jianan Hualian Supermarket at a relative advantage during negotiations. The third is that the Hyperlocal Retail Business Group presiding over Taoxianda had just undergone organizational adjustments a month prior, and everyone’s new responsibilities had not yet all been clarified.
Though that did not make the incident inevitable, most interviewees — whether affiliated with Alibaba or not — didn’t feel surprised by what had happened. Zhou’s case has underlined how the company still hasn’t dealt with the crude sides of its corporate culture and has let its discipline slip.
Alibaba was the first Chinese internet giant to emphasize the importance of corporate values and make them a focal point of its expansion plans. The mooncake incident of 2016 — in which several of Alibaba’s programmers were fired for rigging a platform for the internal sale of mooncakes to employees for the Mid-Autumn Festival — set an extremely high standard for the enforcement of company values.
But these standards were later seen as contradictory to how the company punished Taobao and Tmall President Jiang Fan, who in April last year, was discovered to be having an affair with influencer Zhang Dayi, whose company Alibaba had invested in. Alibaba canceled Jiang’s partner status, indicated his wrongdoings on his record, demoted him, and canceled his bonuses from the previous fiscal year. Compared with the firings over the mooncake incident, this punishment was considered too light by some employees.
Jiang’s was by far the largest in a string of sex scandals to have sullied Alibaba’s image. Others include a senior employee who wanted to hire a “personal assistant” who would also serve as his mistress for a monthly salary of 16,000 yuan, a middle manager who was exposed on the company’s internal platform as simultaneously dating seven different women, and a male mid-level employee who was caught by a security guard having a rendezvous with his female supervisor in the company parking lot.
Since last year alone, several other scandals, including a senior DingTalk employee asking a subordinate to take an internal exam on her behalf, have caused employees’ faith in Alibaba’s adherence to its own values to drop even further. Many have been left wondering: just where does the company draw the line when it comes to misconduct?
A former Alibaba employee said that, though the disruptions in corporate culture may seem small at first, they can quickly be amplified and evolve into more fundamental conflicts when the designated channels for resolving problems don’t function the way they’re supposed to.
For example. most of Alibaba’s sex scandals, both large and small, first emerged on the company’s internal platform before being leaked to the rest of the internet. People have often treated the stories as gossip, and the company rarely addresses them. Many Alibaba employees say they are used to such incidents.
But the incident with Zhou is fundamentally different. As one Alibaba employee put it, the Jiang Fan incident concerned the personal scruples of a powerful man, and the public simply dismissed him as a sleaze. By contrast, this latest incident is about abhorrent, criminal behavior suffered by a far less powerful figure, leaving the public to conclude that some people in the company are downright evil.
Others have been led to believe that the prevalence of sexual harassment is a matter of sheer probability, rather than the product of unhealthy corporate culture. When Zhou reported her assault to Wang’s immediate superior, they didn’t first attempt to determine if the matter was serious or not. According to Zhou’s recount of events, the superior’s initial reaction was, “This is all because of the nature of our job. Given how often we travel on business, I knew that this would happen eventually.”
As a result of Zhou’s case, the sleazy underbelly of Alibaba’s corporate culture has once again drawn public scrutiny. For a long time, Alibaba has used sexually explicit slogans to boost the morale of its new employees, and has subjected them to humiliating “ice-breaking” practices.
Ice-breaking culture varies significantly from one department to another, and mainly depends on the person in charge. An employee who joined Alibaba in early 2020 said that he and his colleagues were initially asked to tongue-kiss one another as an ice-breaking exercise. After they expressed discomfort, they were ultimately allowed to kiss on the lips instead. They were also asked to expose various details of their sex lives. “The penalty for not answering is eight bottles of beer per question,” said the employee, who didn’t want to disclose his position at the company.
Multiple employees of varying ranks and seniority have confirmed that inappropriate ice-breaking practices still exist in some departments of Alibaba but that they are far less extreme than they were in the past. Other employees said they hadn’t personally witnessed any of these practices during their team-building exercises.
One employee who resigned from Alibaba Pictures last year said that his team would partake in improper activities during small annual gatherings. On one occasion, male employees competed to see who could do the most push-ups while their female colleague lay underneath them. According to his observations, “if women want to rise up the ranks, they seemingly have to be better at talking dirty than their male coworkers, as if to convince people that they’re capable of fitting in with male executives.”
The company’s founder hasn’t demonstrated a strong sense of boundaries in his speeches, either.
While speaking at one of the company’s “mass weddings” for 102 Alibaba employee couples in May 2019, Jack Ma, referring to the company’s notorious “996” work schedule — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — said: “At work, we uphold the spirit of 996; while in the home, we need to 669 — that is, we need to make love once a day, six days a week,” adding “duration is key,” using a play on words for nine, which in Chinese is a homonym for “a long time.”
Ma also joked that “the key to a happy marriage is to often use ‘Dingding’” — a slang word for ‘penis’ that shares the same Chinese pronunciation as the company’s messaging application DingTalk. Continuing the puns, he said authority — a homonym for Weixin, the Chinese name for WeChat, which belongs to Alibaba’s rival Tencent — wasn’t as important.