THE CASE OF the Alibaba employee who accused her supervisor and a client of sexual assault during a business trip continues to be a touchstone for China’s incipient but stymied #MeToo movement and its struggle to turn online outrage into real-world change.
In the latest development, the woman who made the original accusation in August, known only as Ms Zhou, says the tech giant has fired her, claiming in the dismissal letter that she had spread falsehoods that had damaged the company’s reputation.
Reading between the lines, the company seems exasperated by her refusal to reach a settlement to leave the company quietly and let the whole matter get swept under the carpet. There is, of course, no reason that she should.
Zhou has said she went public with her accusation in the first place because the company had not taken her complaint seriously. In the wake of the online furore that followed, Alibaba fired the supervisor. Several executives left the company over the matter, including the head of the division where Zhou then worked. He has now sued her for defamation, seeking a public apology and token compensation for reputational damage.
Police arrested the supervisor, but prosecutors in Jinan City, where the alleged rape took place, dropped the case. They said that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a rape charge and while the supervisor had committed ‘forcible indecency’, that did not constitute a crime. That caused another flare of online outrage.
The supervisor was ordered to serve 15 days of administrative detention but appears to have been released almost immediately. The client involved, whom his employer also sacked, may still be under police investigation.
Alibaba, which had previously been censorious of ‘forced drinking culture’, said after the criminal case was dropped that the facts of the case had been ‘clarified’. It has yet to publicly comment on the dismissal, which occurred on November 24. Yet, it does seem to have shot itself in the foot by firing Zhou.
One unusual aspect of Zhou’s case is that it has remained a matter of open discussion and has not been censored online. In that, it stands in contrast to earlier high-profile cases in which accusers have found their social media accounts suspended or filtered. Similar fates have befallen their supporters to prevent any coordinated action.
Zhou’s case stands in even more contrast to that of tennis star Peng Shuai. She has been erased from the internet in China since early November when she posted a lengthy accusation on her Weibo account that a former vice-premier had sexually assaulted her.
Any allegation of wrongdoing against a senior political figure would be censored (at least until political guilt had been established). In Zhou’s case, authorities may have seen political advantage in allowing expressions of public opprobrium for a tech company that was in their crosshairs for other reasons.
The Zhou case is not unusual in not making it to court. Sexual harassment cases rarely do. There is a high bar for evidence, usually requiring video or photographs of the incident, thus increasing the heavy burden of proof that already falls on the victim. The court of public opinion can seem like the only alternative for victims.
However, as in Zhou’s case, that puts them at risk of getting sued for defamation by their alleged harassers. The courts tend not to rule for the victims of sexual assault in that regard, either.
The new civil legal code that came into effect in January allows an employee or other individual to sue for sexual harassment and puts a general obligation on organisations to prevent such behaviour and investigate cases. However, there is no liability specified for not doing so and no protection for victims against retaliation.
As with all laws in China, the application and implementation matter. The rule of law transmutes into rule by law as soon as a Party interest is involved.
The Party does not want to allow the development of any identity politics or the grassroots activism that goes with it. Any signs of feminist or #MeToo movement activity get shut down quickly.
Such activism has shifted public attitudes on sexual harassment and assault in other countries and started to change norms. Without it, that will not happen in China.