Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.
A sexual assault case at Alibaba has sparked a new round of #MeToo reckoning in China. Industry observers believe this is a watershed moment for the fight against China’s allegedly misogynist tech industry. Meanwhile, social media operators are still undecided on how to deal with the unprecedented public uproar against the powerful internet giant.
In other news, more Chinese tech companies have delayed plans to go public overseas after Didi’s fallout with Chinese regulators over its rushed IPO, including Tencent’s music streaming empire and one of China’s highest-valued autonomous driving startups.
Call for justice
Just past midnight last Sunday, an Alibaba employee posted on the company’s internal forum a detailed account saying her manager and a client had sexually assaulted her on a business trip. She took the case public after failing to obtain support from her superiors and human resources.
The post quickly made its rounds through China’s social media platforms. People stayed up blasting Alibaba’s ignorance, toxic business drinking and the pervasive objectification of women in the Chinese “tech industry,” which has grown so far-reaching that it’s just the contemporary corporate world.
A day later, on August 9, Alibaba swiftly fired the alleged perpetrator. Two managers resigned and the firm’s head of HR was given a “disciplinary warning.” Alibaba’s CEO Daniel Zhang said he felt “shocked, angry and ashamed” about the incident and called on the company to work with the police to investigate the case.
This is arguably the most high-profile #MeToo case embroiling a major Chinese tech company by far and one that seems to have beckoned the toughest response from the company involved. Alibaba is formulating company policies to prevent sexual assaults, which surprises many that the global tech behemoth didn’t already have those in place.
The case managed to garner widespread public attention in China thanks to social media. Within the first few hours, it seemed as though discussion around the incident was propagating organically and uncensored on microblogging platform Weibo, in which Alibaba owns a majority stake.
But people soon noticed that despite the severity of the event, it took days before the case climbed to the top of Weibo’s trending chart, a bellwether for the most talked about topic on the Chinese internet. The perceived delay recalls Weibo’s censorship of an extramarital affair involving Alibaba executive Jiang Fan last year.
Talang Qingnian, roughly “Surfing Youth,” a social media column under state paper People’s Daily, blasted in an article:
The slow buildup of discussion again raised suspicion over whether Alibaba has manipulated public discourse.
Ever since the Jiang Fan case, the country’s attitude has been very clear that capital must not control the media.
As the basic infrastructure for truthful news in China, Weibo should not be a tool for any stakeholder to manipulate public opinion.
The article fanned up more public outrage but was soon taken down, likely because its wording was too strong. The Chinese state media apparatus is vast and only a few outlets, such as Xinhua, consistently convey top-level leaders’ official opinions. It’s not uncommon to see the less authoritative state-affiliated publications back down on reports that have cause backlashes. Last week, an article from a state-affiliated economic paper removed a piece calling video games “spiritual opium,” a loaded description that had earlier tanked the stocks of Tencent and NetEase, and republished the article with a softer tone.
Smaller war chests
Regulatory uncertainties have always been flagged as a risk by Chinese companies seeking overseas listings, but it was largely up to foreign investors to decide whether they were worthwhile investments. China’s recent regulatory onslaught on its tech darlings, however, has become a real deterrent for Chinese firms’ IPO dream.
This week, reports arrived that NetEase Music, a popular music streaming service, and Pony.ai, an autonomous vehicle startup last valued at $5.3 billion, have respectively postponed their plans to list in Hong Kong and New York.
Beijing has become warier of its data-rich companies getting scrutinized by U.S. regulators. Last month, the U.S. securities regulator said Chinese companies that want to raise capital in the U.S. must provide information about their legal structure and disclose the risk of Beijing’s interference in their business.
Many Chinese tech firms have learned from Didi’s fallout with the government, which had reportedly told the ridesharing company to hold off on its listing until it sorted out a data protection framework. Didi went ahead regardless, triggering a government probe into its data practice and tanking its shares, which now stand at $8 apiece compared to $16 around its debut in early July.
Beijing’s crackdown has affected every major player in China’s consumer tech sector, wiping as much as $87 billion off the net worth of the country’s tech billionaires, including Pony Ma of Tencent and Colin Huang of Pinduoduo, according to Financial Times. The government wants “hard tech” like semiconductors and clean energy, so it has made it clear to future entrepreneurs where they should allocate their energy. The new generation of startups is listening now.