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Alibaba on Monday scrambled to contain a sexual assault scandal that has thrown China’s largest ecommerce company into the middle of the country’s #MeToo movement, hurting its reputation just as Beijing puts pressure on its tech giants.
In an internal letter dated “before dawn”, Alibaba’s chief executive Daniel Zhang pledged to change the company’s culture and announced the firing of a manager who allegedly sexually assaulted one of his workers. He added that two other executives who failed to act after the incident had resigned.
Zhang called the alleged assault a “humiliation for all Aliren”, or “Ali people” as employees of the company call themselves. “We must rebuild, and we must change,” he said.
He said the employee had first reported the assault on August 2, but the heads of her business group had “failed to prioritise employee protection” and had taken no action.
“When the employee reported a horrendous act such as rape, they did not make timely decisions nor [take] appropriate action,” Zhang wrote, adding that Li Yonghe, the head of Alibaba’s Neighbourhood Retail division and the unit’s HR head, had resigned.
The allegations created a furore over the weekend in China, with 6,000 Alibaba employees joining an online group on Sunday to call for change. In a letter, the employees said the alleged assault had exposed “systematic holes” in the company’s governance.
Online discussion of the incident included debate around the culture at the company, which has in the past encouraged “icebreaker” games among employees to foster camaraderie.
The games at times involved male employees carrying their female coworkers or jointly licking lollipops, while other team gatherings involved pressure to drink, according to former Alibaba employees. Alibaba said it had “a zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct”.
The victim of the alleged assault took her case to Alibaba’s internal message board and staged a protest in the company cafeteria after her managers failed to act on the allegations.
In an account posted to the message board late on Friday, the employee accused her boss of sexually assaulting her after she had been pressured into heavy drinking at a business banquet.
The scandal came days after Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu was detained by Beijing police on suspicion of rape after multiple women accused him of using his influence to pressure them into having sex. Wu has denied the allegations.
The two high-profile cases in quick succession have renewed momentum for China’s #MeToo movement, which has faced online censorship and sluggish progress after a series of allegations in 2018 sparked widespread debate over women’s rights.
For Alibaba it follows on the heels of another executive sex scandal last year, and has thrust the company into the spotlight at a time when the government is scrutinising everything from workplace culture and employee benefits to data security and antitrust violations at its large tech companies.
A youth-focused publication under the party mouthpiece People’s Daily said the incident showed: “Not only power must be put in a cage, but capital must be put in too.”
Alibaba’s Hong Kong-listed shares fell almost 3 per cent.
With reporting from Ryan McMorrow, Christian Shepherd, Sun Yu and Nian Liu in Beijing
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