EYESHENZHEN  /   Opinion

An ugly mix of forced drinking and women's company

Writer: Lin Min  |  Editor: Jane Chen  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  |  Updated: 2021-08-16

Police have detained two men – a former Alibaba employee and a client – for committing "forced obscenity" on an Alibaba female employee during and after a boozy dinner last month.

The female employee surnamed Zhou had alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by a company client during a dinner on July 27 and then raped by her manager, surnamed Wang. Police in Jinan City, Shandong Province, said in a statement Saturday that there had been no evidence to indicate that the men had raped Zhou.

Before the police announced the initial investigation results, Alibaba released a statement Aug. 8, saying that it has a "zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct." In a memo to employees, Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang said the company is "staunchly opposed" to the "ugly forced drinking culture." Wang was fired after he admitted that "there were intimate acts" while Zhou was "drunk."

Far from being limited to Alibaba, "forced drinking" is a chronic, pervasive issue. Drinking at client meetings has long been a common ritual of doing business in China and some other countries where liquor and young women are frequently brought out by male employees or managers as a way to build relations with clients and clinch deals. Having a female co-worker to drink with clients is perceived as helpful for winning a business deal.

However, it goes beyond business. Alcohol is believed to play a role in sexual harassment and assault. Some studies believe approximately one half of sexual assault cases in the United States involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both. It is believed that alcohol's effects on sexual and aggressive behavior, stereotypes about drinking women, and alcohol's effects on cognitive and motor skills contribute to alcohol-involved sexual assault. In some cases, perpetrators use alcohol as an excuse to sexually harass or assault victims, blaming alcohol-induced lost minds for their behavior.

In an 11-page account posted online, Zhou wrote that during the July 27 dinner meeting with a male client from Jinan Hualian supermarket, she was forced to drink too much alcohol and was then molested by the client while her supervisor turned a blind eye. Her supervisor later broke into her room and raped her, according to her post, which went viral.

Police said the investigation did not find Zhou was forced to drink, citing testimonies of dinner participants and waiters. However, the police probe found that six people at the dinner guzzled down nearly five bottles of baijiu – Chinese spirit with alcohol volume of between 35 and 60 percent – and Zhou drank about 350 ml. Few would be convinced that Zhou drank such a big amount of alcohol voluntarily. It is the unseen pressures, or "unspoken rules," that force people to drink at business dinners, and more often than not, excessively. In most cases, employees drink just to show deference to their bosses and business partners.

The incident has triggered heated discussion on how alcohol and work events can be a toxic mix for women. Hopefully this will raise awareness about sexual harassment associated with drinking and prompt more women to step out and say no to forced drinking and alcohol-related abuse.

Big companies should take the lead to address the issue within their organizations and provide better protection for female employees. Alibaba said Thursday that it had established an all-woman committee to address sexual harassment in the workplace, and set up a support hotline. A task force has also been created under the committee to handle all complaints related to sexual harassment and assault. Other companies should take action before more abuses occur.

China codified sexual harassment in its Civil Code last year, but more need to be done to lay out guidelines for enforcement to make it easier for women to protect their rights.

(The author is a deputy editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily.)