When a young female employee at Alibaba, one of China’s largest tech companies, accused her manager and a customer of the company of sexually assaulting her after an alcoholic work dinner last summer, it seemed like a turning point for the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement. .
Months later, it hadn’t gone like this.
In September, prosecutors decided not to charge the woman’s boss, saying his behavior did not constitute a crime. In November, Alibaba fired the woman, who has been identified by police and her lawyers only by her last name, Zhou. The company claimed that Ms. Zhou had damaged her reputation by spreading lies.
But now, in the latest development, a Chinese court on Wednesday found Zhang Guo — the company’s client who accused Ms. Zhou of sexually assaulting her along with her boss — guilty of “forced indecency.” It ordered Mr Zhang to be jailed for 18 months, making him one of the few high-profile cases of men in China being held accountable after allegations of sexual assault.
The People’s Court of Huaiyin District in eastern China said in its ruling that, according to its findings, Mr. Zhang abused Ms. Zhou’s drunkenness and harassed her near the restaurant reception and in a private dining room. It also found that Mr. Zhang went to her hotel room the next day and assaulted her again.
Alibaba fired Ms. Zhou’s former boss, who is identified in news reports by his last name, Wang, in August after Ms. Zhou publicly accused him of rape. Alibaba did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday’s court ruling against Mr. Zhang. Feng Yanqiang, Mr. Zhang, said the verdict was wrong and called his client innocent. Mr Zhang stated in court that he intended to appeal the decision, his lawyer said.
Ms. Zhou said in written answers to questions that Mr. Zhang’s sentence was shorter than she expected. She said the episode had worsened her mental and physical health, and she feared 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” with no answers, she added, “you must choose to fight hard and get justice.”
The incident attracted national attention last year when Ms. Zhou stood up and screamed about the assault in one of Alibaba’s cafeterias. A video posted online shows her loudly accusing her bosses and human resources of ignoring her complaints. When the video spread on social media, it caused an outcry among viewers angry at the many prejudices and power inequalities facing women in China.
The #MeToo movement is struggling to gain momentum in the country. Women who accuse men of sexual harassment or creating a toxic workplace often face vitriol online. Institutions promote messages about women’s empowerment, but many women say accusations of misconduct by colleagues or superiors are often ignored.
The court said on Wednesday that the prosecution provided “reliable and sufficient evidence” in setting up the case against Mr. Zhang. It says that Mr. Zhang has neither confessed nor asked for forgiveness. Chinese news media said neither Ms. Zhou nor Mr. Wang, who were both listed as witnesses, appeared in court in early June during the two-day trial.
Claire Fu research contributed.