Erine joined the Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Global Inc. in 2020, she says, attracted by the opportunity to work for one of the world’s hottest tech companies. That July she had one of her first assignments in a small town—a client meeting that ended with a banquet, the food washed down with many bottles of red wine and the Chinese liquor called baijiu.
That wasn’t unusual: Chinese business dinners often involve lots of alcohol, not unlike the boozy work meetings of 1960s New York featured in Mad Men. Erine, now 33, was the only woman at the table, and she says she felt obligated to join the heavy drinking and keep going when the party moved to another restaurant. The next thing she says she remembers is the client groping her in the back seat of a car, then again in her hotel room. Later, on social media, she posted screenshots of a swollen left eye and mouth—injuries sustained when the client sexually assaulted her, she says.
Two days after the alleged incident, Erine reported the case to the police, who dropped the investigation a month later, and a prosecutor’s report found no medical evidence to prove “forced indecency,” a term that can encompass sexual assault in China. Erine began publicizing her story on social media but got little attention.
Then, in August of this year, an Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. employee publicly accused her manager of sexual harassment, also after a night of heavy drinking. Alibaba fired the accused manager, and two senior executives resigned over their handling of the situation. As that incident went viral, Erine began sharing her ordeal again on China’s biggest microblogging website, Weibo. This time social media users seized on her account, with hundreds following her profile and reposting her updates.
The Alibaba case is shining a spotlight on the experiences of women such as Erine. It’s triggered a reckoning for a corporate culture built around work-related drinking and schmoozing, and it’s put unprecedented pressure on companies to address abusive behaviors that can arise from them. State-controlled media have unleashed a torrent of criticism linking harassment of female employees to corporate drinking policies, and officials in Beijing are paying more attention to these issues as part of President Xi Jinping’s sweeping moral push to clean up everything whether perceived profiteering in after-school tutoring or the corruption of youth by online gaming. Alibaba, online portal Sina, and IQiyi—China’s version of Netflix—have in recent weeks introduced stricter policies to deter excessive drinking at work events and curb sexual harassment.
It could take years for change to occur broadly, but it’s a pivotal moment for a nation that saw limited impact from the #MeToo movement, which exploded elsewhere in 2017. “Liquor table culture has become a fig leaf for workplace bullying, turning the table into a place where the upper ranks can use their power to bully others, and even trigger bad incidents of illegal crimes,” the state-run China News Service wrote in an August commentary.
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