Just months after Alibaba was hit with a nearly $3 billion fine by one of Beijing's top regulators, the company is facing yet another major scandal: This time, it's one that management probably didn't anticipate. Over the weekend, an Alibaba employee published an accusation of sexual assault directed at a corporate manager. The message was reportedly posted on the firm's intranet.
The message alleged that the female employee was groped by a male client, then sexually assaulted by her male manager, during an alcohol soaked business trip back in July. She allegedly tried raising the issue with company leaders, and even tried sharing the issue in the company cafeteria, but received little response. However, shortly after she published her account on the company's intranet, it was quickly circulated on Weibo, swiftly rising to the top of the trending charts.
Faced with this newfound embarrassment, Alibaba fired the manager accused of assault.
According to media reports, Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang sent out an internal memo saying that a male employee had been fired for having "overly intimate relations" with a colleague. Two of the employee's supervisors had also resigned, Zhang wrote, and the company’s chief human resources officer Judy Tong - one of 13 senior leaders - had been given a demerit. The company would also be establishing new "anti-harassment" guidelines that reject "ugly" drinking culture, and create a new outlet for employees to anonymously report violations, Zhang said.
"Having something like this happen is the shame of everyone at Ali," he concluded. "We must change."
The timing couldn't be worse. Just when investors were hoping Beijing's crackdown on its biggest tech firms might be waning, this new threat has come out of nowhere to rattle the company's shares, which slumped in premarket trade on Monday.
In a sign that Beijing might step in arrived via the People's Daily, which published an ominous editorial signaling that - just when Alibaba thought it's troubles with state regulators were over - the company might face more pressures from Beijing. Companies that neglect employees are unlikely to have long-term value, the editorial, shared via the commentary department's WeChat account, declared.
Beijing's response to the incident has earned it rare praise from women's rights activists, who say women aren't scared about discussing the incident on social media since it aligns with the CCP's campaign against big tech and China's most wealthy citizens.
"Their ability to recognize that it’s a PR emergency is a good thing, it marks progress," said Lu Pin, a veteran feminist activist. "Even if it’s a stunt, the message that it sends is very important."
An account of the night where the woman was molested and raped was shared by WaPo:
The Alibaba employee, who is married, said that her night on July 27 started when she arrived at her business meeting and her boss told clients, “See how good I treat you all, I’ve brought you a beautiful woman.” She was pressured to drink despite protests and molested by a client when she was heavily intoxicated, she said. Her male supervisor witnessed this happening, but did not intervene. When she woke up the next day in her hotel room, she couldn’t find her underwear and had vague memories of being frozen on her bed, feeling the pressure of another body on top of her, kissing and touching her. Police helped her review security footage, which showed her boss entering and exiting her room several times throughout the night, she said.
"Writing this up, I could no longer control myself and cried from the devastation," the employee said. "It feels like a dream, like a terrifying, frightening, helpless nightmare."
Her story was met with a call for solidarity signed by 6K Ali employees. Women across the company also shared stories of them being offered as "gifts" during meetings with clients, along with other depredations allegedly tied to the macho drinking culture of Chinese business dealings. As one feminist activist said, women are now poised to "make emergencies" for China's establishment.
By the time this is over, Jack Ma will be working at a McDonald's living a new life like in "Better Call Saul".