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-fueled 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 behavior did not constitute a crime. In November, Alibaba fired the woman, who has been identified by the police and her lawyers only by 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 found Zhang Guo — the company client whom Ms. Zhou accused of sexually assaulting her along with her boss — guilty of “forcible indecency.” It ordered Mr. Zhang to serve 18 months in prison, becoming 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, Mr. Zhang took advantage of Ms. Zhou’s intoxication and that he molested her near the restaurant’s front desk 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, 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 Mr. Zhang. Feng Yanqiang, Mr. Zhang’s lawyer, said the verdict was wrong and called his client innocent. Mr. Zhang stated in court that he planned to appeal the decision, his lawyer said.
June 21, 2022, 3:44 p.m. ET
Ms. Zhou said in written responses to questions that Mr. 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 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 on Wednesday said the prosecution provided “reliable and sufficient evidence” in building the case against Mr. Zhang. It said Mr. Zhang did not confess nor had he asked for forgiveness. Chinese news media said that neither Ms. Zhou nor Mr. Wang, who were both listed as witnesses, appeared in court during the two-day trial in early June.
Claire Fu contributed research.