BEIJING (NYTIMES) – When a young female employee at Alibaba, one of China’s biggest technology firms, accused her manager and a company client of sexually assaulting her after an alcohol-fuelled work dinner last summer, it seemed like a turning point for the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement.
Months later, it had not played out that way.
In September, prosecutors decided not to charge the woman’s boss because they said his behaviour did not constitute a crime.
In November, Alibaba fired the woman, who has been identified by police and her lawyers by only her surname, Zhou. The company claimed Ms Zhou had damaged its reputation by spreading falsehoods.
But now, in the latest development, a Chinese court on Wednesday (June 22) found Zhang Guo – the company client whom Ms Zhou accused of sexually assaulting her along with her boss – guilty of “forcible indecency”. It ordered Zhang to serve 18 months in prison, one of the few high-profile instances of men in China being held accountable after accusations of sexual assault.
The People’s Court of Huaiyin District in eastern China wrote in its ruling that, according to its findings, Zhang had taken advantage of Ms Zhou’s intoxication and molested her near the restaurant’s front desk and in a private dining room. It also found that Zhang had gone to her hotel room the next day and assaulted her again.
Alibaba fired Ms Zhou’s former boss, identified in news reports by his surname, Wang, in August after Ms Zhou publicly accused him of rape. Alibaba did not immediately respond to a request for a comment about Wednesday’s court decision against Zhang.
Mr Feng Yanqiang, Zhang’s lawyer, said the verdict was wrong and called his client innocent. Zhang stated in court that he planned to appeal the decision, his lawyer said.
Ms Zhou said in written responses to questions that Zhang’s sentence was shorter than what she had expected. She said that the episode had caused her mental and physical health to deteriorate and that she worried the court’s decision would discourage other women from coming forward in China.
“I can’t easily encourage more women to be strong and brave, because I know how painful and difficult this process is,” she said. But instead of “dying” without answers, she added, “one should opt to fight hard and get justice”.
The incident attracted national attention last year when Ms Zhou stood up and screamed about the sexual assault in one of Alibaba’s cafeterias. A video posted online showed her loudly accusing her bosses and human resources of ignoring her complaints. As the video spread on social media, it caused an uproar among viewers angry with the many biases and power imbalances that women in China face.
The #MeToo movement has struggled to gain momentum in the country. Women who accuse men of sexual harassment or of creating a toxic workplace are frequently met with vitriol online. Institutions promote messages of female empowerment, but many women say accusations of misconduct by colleagues or superiors are often ignored.
The court said on Wednesday that the prosecution had provided “reliable and sufficient evidence” in building the case against Zhang. It said Zhang had not confessed or asked for forgiveness. Chinese news media said neither Ms Zhou nor Mr Wang, who had both been listed as witnesses, appeared in court during the two-day trial in early June.