Alibaba and Kris Wu, the faces of China’s new #MeToo movement. But politics has final say
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Alibaba and Kris Wu, the faces of China’s new #MeToo movement. But politics has final say

The differences in response to Kris Wu and Alibaba cases shed light on the Chinese Communist Party’s growing discontentment with celebrity culture.

The Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd. logo is displayed outside the company's office in Beijing, China /Bloomberg

Two prominent #MeToo cases have swayed discussion on Chinese social media. Kris Wu, a pop artiste and film star, and a supervisor at Alibaba were accused and investigated for sexual assault charges, in two separate incidents.

The differences in response to these two cases have come to shed light on the blatant political favouritism and the Chinese Communist Party’s growing discontentment with celebrity culture that decides who gets punished and who doesn’t.

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Kris Wu case

On 31 July, the Chaoyang District Police announced on Chinese social media site Sina Weibo that they had opened an investigation against a “30-year-old Chinese-Canadian man surnamed Wu on allegations of tricking young women into having sex.” The police did not give any other details. This came after teen influencer Du Meizhu accused Kris Wu of sexual assault in a Weibo post, claiming that Wu used a Weibo account to attract teenage girls with the promise of “signing a new contract with the studio.” She also claimed to have suffered mental trauma and had to seek medical treatment. Du Meizhu has either deleted the post since Wu’s arrest, or they have been made private.

Recently, in July, Du gave an interview in which she alleged that she knew about eight other victims, of whom at least two were minors. Du claimed she met Wu when she was 17 years old. The age of consent is 14 in China.

The investigation surprised many as high-profile celebrities and public personalities have escaped similar allegations in the past. Wu has denied all allegations of assault.

Wu rose to popularity after joining a South Korean-Chinese boy band called EXO, and later left it in 2014 to enter the Chinese film and entertainment industry. In 2018, Wu became the first Chinese origin artist to sing at the Super Bowl live concert. Referred to by the name “Wu Yi Fan” by his fans, Wu was born in Guangzhou in 1990 but later became a Canadian citizen.

Kris Wu’s fans attacked Du Meizhu on Weibo for making these allegations. They accused Du of misrepresenting the facts. Fans have tried to look for evidence on Weibo to prove that it was a false accusation. Since the allegations surfaced, 20 women have come forward with their own stories of sexual improprieties by Kris Wu.

“Business insiders said Wu’s case was a turning point in a crackdown launched in June to rein in star agents, fan clubs and social media platforms that have become hugely influential among young people in recent years”, reported the South China Morning Post.

Since then, WeChat and Douyin have deleted Wu’s personal and business accounts. Weibo has also closed group chats and removed remarks by Wu’s fans for “misleading” commentary. It suspended over 1,000 accounts – including those of three celebrities – following Wu’s detention.

Kris Wu’s case illustrates the growing conflict between China’s celebrity culture and the Chinese Communist Party. In August 2019, Wu reshared a post by Chinese State news outlet CCTV that read, “China’s national flag has 1.4 billion flag bearers” in response to the ripping of the Chinese flag at the height of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Kris Wu’s celebrity status and his past patriotic social media posts couldn’t save him from the investigation.

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Alibaba case

Another MeToo case that rocked Chinese social media is an allegation by an Alibaba employee.

The staffer was reported to have written and shared an 11-page document alleging sexual assault on the company’s intranet. The story of the document later went viral on Weibo and turned into one of the most trending topics. The Jinan police force said in a statement they were “investigating and seeking evidence.” The employee alleged that her supervisor and a client assaulted her after she was forced to drink on a business trip. The allegation brought into discussion the drinking culture related to work, on Weibo.

The employee said she had reported the assault to management at Alibaba, but no action was taken against her supervisor.

Alibaba was accused of being slow to act on the assault allegations as the story made its way into chat groups on WeChat and Weibo. Li Yonghe, the president of Alibaba’s local retail services, resigned for failing to respond to the allegations. Xu Kun, Alibaba’s human resources generalist, resigned as well.

On 8 August, “Ali’s speaking up culture” trended on the first place on Weibo. The hashtag “Alibaba responded that female employees were violated” was viewed over 410 million times on Weibo. The story continues to trend prominently on Weibo.

“We have suspended relevant parties suspected of violating our policies and values, and we have established a special internal task force to investigate the issue and support the ongoing police investigation,” Alibaba said in a statement.

Alibaba said they fired the supervisor accused of sexual assault. The supervisor’s real name wasn’t revealed, and instead, they were called Quyi, a nom de guerre.

“Quyi will never be rehired by the company, according to the predawn memo written by Zhang, which added that law enforcement will determine whether Quyi has committed rape, or indecency that violates the law”, reported the South China Morning Post.

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Crackdown on celebrities

In 2018, the #MeToo campaign became the centre of discussion on Chinese social media. The hashtag “Mi Tu”, a wordplay on the Chinese character “rice bunny”, was used by social media users in 2018 to share their stories of assault. Other hashtags, such as #IAmAlso was also used. Chen Xiaowu, a professor at Beihang University in Beijing, was sacked in 2018 over allegations by a former student. But Chen managed to dodge criminal investigations. Social media users commented that prominent figures like Chen could escape investigation despite the severity of allegations.

However, the contrast between Wu and Quyi’s case suggests that the former’s celebrity status and Canadian citizenship may have led to the swift detention by police. The censorship of Wu’s fans reveals an attempt to crack down on celebrity culture in China. The People’s Daily commented on Wu’s Canadian citizenship in an opinion post: “Having a foreign nationality is not a protective talisman, and no matter how big the name is, there is no immunity.” One Weibo user said, “After the Wu Yi Fan incident, people are learning that their ten most popular stars aren’t even Chinese citizens”. Xinhua also published a commentary that said, “The Wu Yifan incident should not only be a “feast” for public opinion but also raise an alarm bell for the performing arts industry. The abnormal environment of the domestic entertainment industry should be completely rectified.”

Kris Wu and Quyi’s cases have brought back the #MeToo campaign in China. But the party’s political agenda and growing nationalistic sentiment determine who gets detained and who gets away with losing their jobs.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)