A high-profile rape allegation at Chinese tech giant Alibaba has sparked a social media storm in recent weeks about the “toxic” work culture of pressuring employees to drink at work gatherings. As public scrutiny of corporate misbehaviour grows in China, can the age-old tradition of business drinking be dropped forever?
Mingxi has to join her colleagues for drinks after work every two weeks, which she dreads.
After all, it’s not just a case of grabbing a few pints at the local pub.
Instead, it’s frequently a drawn-out affair involving forced smiles with clients and formal toasting etiquette – and she’s never at ease.
“I’m always worried that things will get out of hand, even though I’m quite good at holding my drink,” the 26-year-old public relations consultant from Guangzhou told the BBC.
“Every now and then, people make inappropriate sexual jokes, and I have to pretend to laugh at them.”
Mingxi is not using her real name because she does not want her identity to be revealed.
Her experience is shared by other young Chinese workers who feel compelled to attend such events in a country where cultivating guanxi – or personal relationships – is essential for securing business deals and maintaining good standing in the eyes of upper management.
China’s tradition of business binge drinking is once again in the spotlight, after a rape allegation against a senior manager at Chinese tech giant Alibaba.
According to an 11-page account of the incident that went viral on the microblogging platform Weibo last month, a female employee was raped while unconscious after a “drunken night” on a work trip.
She accused her superiors of ordering her to drink excessively at a business dinner and claimed she awoke naked in her hotel room later that night with no recollection of the evening’s events.
She claimed that the manager had entered her room four times during the night after viewing security footage.
Alibaba sacked the manager and said that he would “never be rehired”.
But Chinese prosecutors have since dropped the case, with lawyers saying that the “forcible indecency” committed by the man was not a crime. Police said he would remain under detention for 15 days “as punishment”, but the investigation was closed.
Nonetheless, it sparked a social media firestorm, not only about sexual harassment in the workplace, but also about the “toxic” tradition of forcing employees to drink excessively at work social events.
The hashtag “how to view workplace drinking culture” has been viewed more than 110 million times on Weibo, with people sharing their own experiences of being pressured to drink in business settings.
‘To refuse is to be disrespectful’
There are parallels between China’s business drinking culture and that of its East Asian neighbours, where nomikai gatherings in Japan and hoesik gatherings in South Korea are both seen as important for building strong work relationships.
In China, the drinks are typically consumed during lavish banquet dinners, with the potent Chinese liquor baijiu – which contains up to 60% alcohol – being a popular choice.
Younger employees are expected to show respect to their superiors by making toasts with alcohol, and any businessman hoping to impress their clients will frequently do the same.
“Generally, you say very complimentary words and express your gratitude and appreciation for having this relationship,” Ms Rui Ma, a tech analyst who has attended numerous business dinners across China, said.
“Obviously, the more toasts you make, the more drunk you become.”
Senior managers may sometimes put pressure on newer hires to help drink their share, leaving their juniors sick and reeling.
“It’s difficult to say no to your boss because of China’s strong sense of hierarchy,” Ms Ma explained.
This is also why employees frequently find it difficult to decline invitations to dinners in the first place.
“Refusing such an invitation would be seen as extremely disrespectful, and no employee wishing to advance their career would dare to consider rejecting the offer,” said Daxue Consulting’s China market analyst Hanyu Liu.
Mingxi expressed concern about being sidelined at work if she opted out of such gatherings.
“These dinners are so important that some people will use them as avenues to suck up to executives. But it’s really not for everyone,” she said.
In 2016, government officials cracked down on the practice among civil servants, banning them from touching alcohol during official duties.
However, the practise has persisted in many private firms, particularly when older executives are in charge, and a number of extreme incidents have made headlines.
A security guard in Shenzhen died in January of last year after allegedly being pressured by his boss to participate in a drinking contest during dinner after work.
His colleague, who was also forced to consume excessive amounts of alcohol at the same event, was hospitalised for alcohol poisoning.
According to local media reports, the security firm paid 5,000 yuan ($775, £576) to cover his medical expenses, and the boss involved resigned.
Then, in August of last year, a young bank employee in Beijing claimed he was cursed and slapped in the face for declining a drink from a senior staff member at a banquet.
The storey became public after he discussed it in an online chat group.
“I want to ask human resources: Does my inability to drink fall short of the company’s job requirement?” he wrote, noting how he also saw his peers vomiting and “tipsy officials being touchy-feely with female colleagues” at the same event.
The bank responded by confirming that a senior employee had acted inappropriately and apologising on his behalf. It went on to say that he had received a warning and that his pay had been docked.
Meanwhile, the high-profile rape allegations surrounding celebrity Kris Wu earlier this year also featured claims of coerced drinking during a meeting that promised young women job opportunities. Mr Wu has denied all the allegations.
Ending the ‘disgusting’ tradition
Given the widespread outrage over these recent incidents, experts believe that the days of forced business drinking may be coming to an end.
“Business drinking has been going on for a long time, but the Alibaba case sparked public outrage because of social media,” Daxue Consulting’s Mr Liu told the BBC.
“The Chinese are very connected on the internet, and given the sheer number of people online, they can quickly take down people and companies.”
Companies will be more cautious about doing anything that risks government action in the midst of the state’s ongoing crackdown on several industries, including some of the country’s largest firms.
“Given the recent dynamics between China’s corporate and political spaces, the last thing firms want is to be in the spotlight,” Mr Liu said.
Following the disclosure of the Alibaba case, CEO Daniel Zhang assured employees in a memo that the company was “staunchly opposed to forced drinking culture.”
Soon after, China’s anti-corruption watchdog called for an end to the “disgusting” practise, adding in an online commentary that it would strengthen oversight of Chinese companies to combat it.
“China’s after-work drinking culture will undoubtedly change,” Mr Liu predicted.