Police probe fired Alibaba manager for 'forcible indecency', not rape

The findings has triggered renewed debate online about the mistreatment of female workers across companies in China. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - The police investigating an Alibaba Group employee's sexual assault allegation against her boss have found no evidence of rape, raising questions about what unfolded in a case that has shocked China's technology industry.

Alibaba fired the accused manager last week after the female employee's account about being raped by her supervisor while on a business trip went viral.

In their initial findings released online, the police said the former manager was suspected of committing "forcible indecency" against the woman surnamed Zhou, employing a term that can encompass sexual assault.

In their report, the police sketched out details that confirmed parts of the woman's previous account, including that her manager entered her hotel room four times after an alcohol-fuelled dinner with clients. At one point, the manager ordered condoms online, though he only picked it up the next morning and discarded it, according to the police.

The manager and a client present at the dinner - since fired by his own employer - have been held for questioning, the police said in a statement on Weibo. So far, no evidence suggesting rape has occurred but the case is still being investigated, they said.

The findings triggered renewed debate online over the weekend about an incident that has revived discussion about the mistreatment of female workers across companies in China, where the #MeToo movement has failed to take off as widely as in Silicon Valley or elsewhere.

Ms Zhou's allegations, which she published in an 8,000-word account that detailed a week-long ordeal to call attention to her plight, have reverberated through Alibaba's highest echelons and tech firms across the country.

Two senior executives at the e-commerce giant have since resigned and chief executive Daniel Zhang called his company's handling of the incident a "humiliation".

The debate coincided with intense government scrutiny on issues ranging from anti-monopoly violations to the treatment of low-wage workers, particularly in the powerful tech industry.

According to the police, Ms Zhou attended a dinner on July 27 with her manager, surnamed Wang, along with colleagues and clients in the northern city of Jinan. The supervisor and a co-worker escorted Ms Zhou back to her hotel after a bout of heavy drinking. But she was too intoxicated to state her room number so the Alibaba manager provided the front desk with Ms Zhou's ID and key.

The Jinan police confirmed the manager later had a room key made and entered Ms Zhou's hotel room four times.

Mr Wang is suspected of "forcible indecency" upon entering the room a second time, around 11.23 pm. He then purchased condoms about 10 minutes later. But the manager only collected the items, delivered to the front desk, at around 10 am the next day, the police report said.

Mr Wang returned to Ms Zhou's room past midnight a third time, then a fourth to collect his umbrella.

The police said the client, surnamed Zhang, was also suspected of "forcible indecency" when he accompanied Ms Zhou back to the dinner table after she vomited following excessive drinking on July 27.

Ms Zhou contacted Mr Zhang early the following day - after the events involving Mr Wang the previous night - and relayed her room number.

Mr Zhang entered Ms Zhou's room at 7.59am and again was suspected of "forcible indecency". He left at 9.35am, taking her underwear but leaving a package of unopened condoms, according to the statement.

Other details of the incident remain unclear, while Mr Wang and Mr Zhou were not available for comment. But beyond the specifics, the case has already triggered what many say is a long overdue examination of the ways Chinese women are too often treated at work: overlooked, objectified, forced to take part in male-dominated rituals like drinking with clients and brushed aside when reporting abuse.

Alibaba has moved to establish better protections for its employees even as the investigation continues. It has created a hotline and a team of senior women executives dedicated to investigating sexual harassment complaints, and plans to release findings from the company's own internal inquiry soon.

In a commentary about the incident, the Communist Party of China's anti-corruption watchdog warned that "under the table rules" such as forced drinking for business purposes may lead to crimes.

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