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China's business drinking culture spurs #MeToo moment

Forced imbibing is often used as a test of obedience or an excuse to grope women

Supporters hold #MeToo and other signs outside a court before singer Zhou Xiaoxuan, also known by her online name Xianzi, arrives for a sexual harassment case involving a Chinese state TV host, in Beijing on December 2, 2020.   © Reuters

NEW YORK/ PALO ALTO -- Peggy from Shanghai remembers well an academic convention she attended during her college years. It wasn't the moving speech by an executive from a well-known public company, but what happened later over dinner.

The businessman turned to Peggy and asked her to drink, but she refused saying she was sick. "He immediately pulled a long face and seemed angry, as if I did something really bad," Peggy, now a finance professional in her mid-20s, told Nikkei Asia. "Another executive said, 'How could you be like this?' and said things like I don't know how to socialize."

This was Peggy's first encounter with jiu zhuo wen hua, or business drinking, where subordinates are expected to drink when their bosses or clients demand.

"He was already drunk and I saw him put his arms around other women, it made me very uncomfortable so I texted my friend and we left early," said Peggy.

"We had to leave very discreetly because some of the student organizers wanted us to drink with the executives... I was very angry that our colleagues and classmates wanted us to do such a thing, I think they put the female classmates in harm's way."

From Kris Wu, a singer arrested on suspicion of rape, and an Alibaba employee suspected of "forcible indecency," China may be meeting its #MeToo moment. People are becoming more aware of sexual assault and harassment as more Chinese women speak out, and the cases -- often stemming from forced binge drinking -- are causing an uproar among netizens.

It is a similar story in East Asian peers such as South Korea and Japan, where business drinking is also common. There have been several high profile cases in both countries in recent years, and nascent #MeToo-style movements are growing.

But despite taking down several college feminist groups' WeChat accounts last month, the Chinese government has shown support for the #MeToo cases but has spun the narrative that it is the fault of celebrity behavior and tech company culture. Several Chinese state media outlets have been critical of the Kris Wu and Alibaba scandals, and newspapers such as The Beijing News have attacked the business drinking culture.

"The setbacks and the progress are not in conflict with each other and they will keep happening," said Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist activist based in New York. "They took down feminist opinion leaders so there is no organization or visible movement. The censorship bar for speaking out has risen, people are more concerned about speaking out but they still will."

Leta Hong Fincher, author of "Betraying Big Brother," said that the current uproar in China shows the power of feminist awakening in the country.

"I don't think the Chinese government has decided to just let everybody speak their mind on social media. I think these two cases are special, there's a way for the authorities to align themselves with the particular grievances and use them for their own purpose," said Fincher. "I fully expect feminism to continue to be broadly censored on social media."

"There's an enormous power and extremely broad appeal for this feminist movement beyond the two cases, all sorts of issues such as gender discrimination, domestic violence, pressure to marry," Fincher added. "I think this is certainly a victory for feminist activists in China, but the struggle continues."

#MeToo cases have surfaced before, such as the landmark case brought by singer Xianzi against television host Zhu Jun. But while Kris Wu has been arrested and Alibaba has fired the manager, it is often difficult to gather evidence in such cases.

"No matter how the cases would turn out, the #MeToo outburst in the public arena is significant," said Lu. "The #MeToo cases may not lead to convictions, but the movement could push the public to change the toxic environment."

In China, it is no secret that many business deals come from dinner tables and karaoke lounges. Alcohol is often used as a "lubricant" to build trust between potential business partners.

Lu explained that people need to vet who they can trust because China's business laws are not comprehensive enough. They use binge-drinking, often with high alcohol content Chinese rice wine, as a kind of "moral contract" that once they get drunk together, they are friends and can trust each other not to harm the other person's business interests.

"Market competition in China, to a certain level, is more a competition of who you know than your skills or your products," Lu said. But the core of business drinking is "patriarchal."

"It is a primitive way of doing business," Lu told Nikkei Asia. "It's led by male managers and executives, they've formed boys' clubs where they collectively bully and take advantage of women, who are considered emotional and seen as visual entertainment and services on such occasions. This is why in some extreme cases, male managers go out and call prostitutes together."

"The idea of doing bad things together as a 'boys' club' convinces them that they can trust each other," Lu added.

Drinking is not only used for making deals, managers also use it as a test of obedience and often, it turns into a cover for taking advantage of female employees. If subordinates refuse to drink, there could be consequences for their career advancement. The test of deference can easily become inappropriate touching or worse.

Claire Zhu, a data analyst at an e-commerce company in China, said tech is better than many other industries in terms of how female employees are treated.

"As someone who used to work in finance, I feel much safer and respected in my current company," said Zhu.

"Unlike finance, tech companies are relatively new, so there are not that many outdated legacy cultures such as hierarchy or traditional gender-roles. Many tech workers are millennials, some have overseas experience. They are generally more woke than previous generations," Zhu added.

Ali, a lawyer in her 20s, used to work at a law firm in Beijing where her male manager had a pattern of groping female subordinates at team dinners.

"The first time I went to our team dinner, he put his arms around me. I pushed him away but he had the audacity to try again forcefully so that I couldn't easily break out of it. I felt that it was a test, he just wanted to see if I would challenge him or not," said Ali. "Even after I left the firm, my former male colleagues texted me and said the manager wasn't a bad person."

Liu, who works at Google's China office, said the Alibaba news brought back a lot of bad memories for her when she was working for a Chinese real estate company.

"I [often] had to go drinking or to KTV with my bosses and clients after-hours. Our clients are mostly men my dad's age and they'd comment on my appearance, stare at me and make up excuses to make me drink. My bosses would just sit there, do nothing, and sometimes even pressure me to drink as well," said Liu.

"I didn't know why I felt uncomfortable at the time, and I even felt bad for not acting as cool as some other female colleagues in situations like this. I didn't know what they did was wrong or how to protect myself, because we never had any training to teach us things like that."

Liu quit her job after ten months at the company, but the experiences still traumatize her. "I cut all my ties with the real estate industry. I just don't want anyone to remind me of that past," said Liu.

Even in the tech industry, female employees are under-represented, especially at the management level.

Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-hailing giant, launched Didi Women's Network, in April this year. The project was initiated and headed by the company president Jean Liu, one of the few C-suite executives in China's big tech companies. Zhu said a program like this is possible at Didi, but not at other companies, because a woman is sitting at the decision-making table.

"I believe in 'girls help girls.' Women have more empathy for others in similar situations, hence they understand how to make the work environment better for other fellow females," said Zhu.

When asked if the #MeToo movement and other gender equality advocacies in recent years have helped improve the work environment in China, Zhu said she is not sure, but "it definitely helped with my personal growth as a woman."

"When I was a fresh graduate, I went for an interview at a national bank. The manager asked me if I'm ok with drinking with clients and in some scenarios there might be some touching. I froze at the question and didn't say anything," Zhu said.

"I didn't know my rights at the time. If it's me today, I'd tell him NO immediately and file an official complaint," she added.

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