Chinese man jailed for sexual assault of Alibaba employee on work trip

·4 min read
File photo of a logo of Alibaba Group at its office building in Beijing, China August 9, 2021
Alibaba, which was criticised for its handling of the case, says it opposes a forced drinking culture

A client of Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba has been sentenced to 18 months in jail for sexually assaulting one of its female employees on a work trip.

The court in the eastern city of Jinan heard the woman had been forced to drink alcohol before the assault.

The woman was later fired by Alibaba after she made her allegations public.

Her case has made headlines and sparked much comment, highlighting the harassment Chinese women face in the workplace. The client plans to appeal.

The vast majority of sexual assault cases do not make it to court in China - fewer still result in convictions.

While there has been sympathy for the victim, there has also been criticism of her on social media for getting drunk. There was condemnation, too, of the country's office drinking culture and Alibaba's handling of the case.

The Alibaba employee went public last August, saying the firm had failed to take action. She also accused a more senior colleague on the same trip of raping her. He was then sacked, but a criminal case against him was later dropped.

In December it emerged the woman had been fired by Alibaba, her dismissal letter saying she had spread falsehoods that damaged its reputation.

The client Zhang Guo, who has been in custody for nearly a year, has about eight months left to serve of his sentence.

Jinan Huaiyin District People's Court found him "guilty of forcible indecency, sexually assaulting the victim against her will while she was drunk", state media outlet the Global Times reported.

The court found the assaults happened over two days - during their first meeting at a restaurant "and again the next day in Zhou's hotel room", the Global Times said.

What were the allegations?

The woman's account of the incident was published in an 11-page document, in which she said her manager raped her in a hotel room while she was unconscious after a "drunken night" last summer.

It prompted a social media storm on China's Twitter-like platform, Weibo.

The woman alleged the manager coerced her into travelling to the city of Jinan, which is about 900km (560 miles) from Alibaba's head office in Hangzhou, for a meeting with a client.

She accused her superiors of ordering her to drink alcohol with co-workers during dinner.

She said that on the evening of 27 July the client kissed her. She then recalls waking up in her hotel room the next day without her clothes on and with no memory of the night before.

The woman said she obtained surveillance camera footage that showed the manager had gone into her room four times during the evening.

After returning to Hangzhou, the woman said the incident was reported to Alibaba's human resources (HR) department and senior management and that she had requested the manager be fired.

She said HR initially agreed to the request but took no further action.

What was the response?

Alibaba faced a fierce public backlash, later firing the co-worker. The company said two executives who failed to act on the allegation also resigned.

A memo was issued saying Alibaba was "staunchly opposed to forced drinking culture".

Alibaba had earlier said the man accused of rape had admitted "there were intimate acts" while the woman was "inebriated".

Although the co-worker's case did not progress, prosecutors of the court approved the arrest of the client, leading to his trial and conviction.

The case has divided opinion online and been one of the most discussed on Weibo. Some social media users initially posted that the co-worker got away too lightly while others said there wasn't enough evidence against him.

News of the sentence was widely covered in China, although on social media there was a lack of sympathy for the victim, whose own behaviour was questioned by many, apparently ignoring what happened to her. Numerous posts from men supported her attacker's appeal.

Victims of gender violence struggle to speak up about it in China, where attacks on women remain common.

The former Alibaba employee told reporters via WeChat that she read the verdict on the news.

"I don't know how to describe what I'm currently feeling. I've waited so long for this verdict... I feel wronged, and sad, but no-one empathises with me."

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