What tech tycoon Richard Liu’s sexual misconduct case means for China’s #MeToo

One of the highest-profile sexual assault allegations against Chinese business tycoons ended abruptly this past weekend. Liu Qiangdong, the founder of Chinese ecommerce giant JD.com, also known as Richard Liu, has reached a settlement with Liu Jingyao, a former University of Minnesota student who alleged that the billionaire raped her in her apartment in 2018.

The announcement came in a joint statement from the two parties on Saturday, just two days before Mr. Liu was scheduled to face a civil trial in Minneapolis, during which the press would have been allowed to live tweet from the courtroom. The amount for the settlement wasn’t disclosed

The joint statement neither denied nor confirmed Ms. Liu’s claims, saying only that the incident between Mr. Liu and Ms. Liu (unrelated) “resulted in a misunderstanding that has consumed substantial public attention and brought profound suffering to the parties and their families.”

“Today, the parties agreed to set aside their differences, and settle their legal dispute in order to avoid further pain and suffering caused by the lawsuit.”

Some might see the result as yet another instance where powerful figures get to shun legal ramifications using their power and money. But others argue this is already a step forward for China’s beleaguered #MeToo movement. Mr. Liu has previously denied the rape allegations and could have used his financial prowess to defend his purported innocence through the trial. A settlement instead might suggest his silent admission of wrongdoings.

“It’s such a historic moment for the past four-year #Metoo movement in China, as the settlement remains significant for the results of struggle by Jingyao and feminists,” reads a blog post by the Free Chinese Feminist group. “The settlement also reconfirms the facts that have been denied by Liu Qiangdong and JD.com, and recognizes that Liu Qiangdong kept hiding the truth.”

The case has drawn widespread attention in China and many were waiting for the trial to uncover more details of the case against one of China’s wealthiest men, a scenario that would have been nearly impossible in China where sexual allegations have historically been silenced.

Online discussions about the #MeToo case at least seem to be allowed. On the microblogging platform Weibo, the hashtag for the settlement news has accumulated over 40 million views. That’s perhaps unsurprising given that Chinese censors are unlikely to side with an ecommerce boss at a time Beijing is reining in the unfettered power of the internet sector.

Mr. Liu, whose blunt speeches and marriage to an internet celebrity was often the topic of tabloid news, has largely retreated from public life since the case surfaced. In April, the 49-year-old executive stepped down as JD’com’s CEO after founding the online retailer, which is hailed as the Amazon of China, some 24 years ago. He remains the chairman of the firm’s board.

The four-year legal entanglement didn’t seem to wane investor confidence in JD.com. The company’s stock price has nearly doubled to $50 apiece from September 2018 when Mr. Liu first faced the sexual misconduct allegations, though the shares are still down 50% from a high point in February 2021. With a market cap of around $77 billion, JD.com is the 20th biggest company in China at the time of writing.

JD.com hasn’t fared too badly amid China’s tech clampdown overall. Most of the country’s internet giants have lost a substantial chunk of their market cap following a litany of regulations over monopolies, data practices, and more. Alibaba’s stock has shrunk 70% from a high in October 2020 and Tencent’s is down 66% from its peak in February 2021.

What tech tycoon Richard Liu’s sexual misconduct case means for China’s #MeToo by Rita Liao originally published on TechCrunch

China roundup: Alibaba’s sexual assault scandal and more delayed IPOs

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 ride-sharing 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.

Gender, race and social change in tech; Moira Weigel on the Internet of Women, Part Two

Tech ethics can mean a lot of different things, but surely one of the most critical, unavoidable, and yet somehow still controversial propositions in the emerging field of ethics in technology is that tech should promote gender equality. But does it? And to the extent it does not, what (and who) needs to change?

In this second of a two-part interview “On The Internet of Women,” Harvard fellow and Logic magazine founder and editor Moira Weigel and I discuss the future of capitalism and its relationship to sex and tech; the place of ambivalence in feminist ethics; and Moira’s personal experiences with #MeToo.

Greg E.: There’s a relationship between technology and feminism, and technology and sexism for that matter. Then there’s a relationship between all of those things and capitalism. One of the underlying themes in your essay “The Internet of Women,” that I thought made it such a kind of, I’d call it a seminal essay, but that would be a silly term to use in this case…

Moira W.: I’ll take it.

Greg E.: One of the reasons I thought your essay should be required reading basic reading in tech ethics is that you argue we need to examine the degree to which sexism is a part of capitalism.

Moira W.: Yes.

Greg E.: Talk about that.

Moira W.: This is a big topic! Where to begin?

Capitalism, the social and economic system that emerged in Europe around the sixteenth century and that we still live under, has a profound relationship to histories of sexism and racism. It’s really important to recognize that sexism and racism themselves are historical phenomena.

They don’t exist in the same way in all places. They take on different forms at different times. I find that very hopeful to recognize, because it means they can change.

It’s really important not to get too pulled into the view that men have always hated women there will always be this war of the sexes that, best case scenario, gets temporarily resolved in the depressing truce of conventional heterosexuality.  The conditions we live under are not the only possible conditions—they are not inevitable.

A fundamental Marxist insight is that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation. In order to grow, a company needs to pay people less for their work than that work is worth. Race and gender help make this process of exploitation seem natural.

Image via Getty Images / gremlin

Certain people are naturally inclined to do certain kinds of lower status and lower waged work, and why should anyone be paid much to do what comes naturally? And it just so happens that the kinds of work we value less are seen as more naturally “female.” This isn’t just about caring professions that have been coded female—nursing and teaching and so on, although it does include those.

In fact, the history of computer programming provides one of the best examples. In the early decades, when writing software was seen as rote work and lower status, it was mostly done by women. As Mar Hicks and other historians have shown, as the profession became more prestigious and more lucrative, women were very actively pushed out.

You even see this with specific coding languages. As more women learn, say, Javascript, it becomes seen as feminized—seen as less impressive or valuable than Python, a “softer” skill. This perception, that women have certain natural capacities that should be free or cheap, has a long history that overlaps with the history of capitalism.  At some level, it is a byproduct of the rise of wage labor.

To a medieval farmer it would have made no sense to say that when his wife had their children who worked their farm, gave birth to them in labor, killed the chickens and cooked them, or did work around the house, that that wasn’t “work,” [but when he] took the chickens to the market to sell them, that was. Right?

A long line of feminist thinkers has drawn attention to this in different ways. One slogan from the 70s was, ‘whose work produces the worker?’ Women, but neither companies nor the state, who profit from this process, expect to pay for it.

Why am I saying all this? My point is: race and gender have been very useful historically for getting capitalism things for free—and for justifying that process. Of course, they’re also very useful for dividing exploited people against one another. So that a white male worker hates his black coworker, or his leeching wife, rather than his boss.

Greg E.: I want to ask more about this topic and technology; you are a publisher of Logic magazine which is one of the most interesting publications about technology that has come on the scene in the last few years.

On the Internet of Women with Moira Weigel

“Feminism,” the writer and editor Marie Shear famously said in an often-misattributed quote, “is the radical notion that women are people.” The genius of this line, of course, is that it appears to be entirely non-controversial, which reminds us all the more effectively of the past century of fierce debates surrounding women’s equality.

And what about in tech ethics? It would seem equally non-controversial that ethical tech is supposed to be good for “people,” but is the broader tech world and its culture good for the majority of humans who happen to be women? And to the extent it isn’t, what does that say about any of us, and about all of our technology?

I’ve known, since I began planning this TechCrunch series exploring the ethics of tech, that it would need to thoroughly cover issues of gender. Because as we enter an age of AI, with machines learning to be ever more like us, what could be more critical than addressing the issues of sex and sexism often at the heart of the hardest conflicts in human history thus far?

Meanwhile, several months before I began envisioning this series I stumbled across the fourth issue of a new magazine called Logic, a journal on technology, ethics, and culture. Logic publishes primarily on paper — yes, the actual, physical stuff, and a satisfyingly meaty stock of it, at that.

In it, I found a brief essay, “The Internet of Women,” that is a must-read, an instant classic in tech ethics. The piece is by Moira Weigel, one of Logic’s founders and currently a member of Harvard University’s “Society of Fellows” — one of the world’s most elite societies of young academics.

A fast-talking 30-something Brooklynite with a Ph.D. from Yale, Weigel’s work combines her interest in sex, gender, and feminism, with a critical and witty analysis of our technology culture.

In this first of a two-part interview, I speak with Moira in depth about some of the issues she covers in her essay and beyond: #MeToo; the internet as a “feminizing” influence on culture; digital media ethics around sexism; and women in political and tech leadership.

Greg E.: How would you summarize the piece in a sentence or so?

Moira W.: It’s an idiosyncratic piece with a couple of different layers. But if I had to summarize it in just a sentence or two I’d say that it’s taking a closer look at the role that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have played in the so-called “#MeToo moment.”

In late 2017 and early 2018, I became interested in the tensions that the moment was exposing between digital media and so-called “legacy media” — print newspapers and magazines like The New York Times and Harper’s and The Atlantic. Digital media were making it possible to see structural sexism in new ways, and for voices and stories to be heard that would have gotten buried, previously.

A lot of the conversation unfolding in legacy media seemed to concern who was allowed to say what where. For me, this subtext was important: The #MeToo moment was not just about the sexualized abuse of power but also about who had authority to talk about what in public — or the semi-public spaces of the Internet.

At the same time, it seemed to me that the ongoing collapse of print media as an industry, and really what people sometimes call the “feminization” of work in general, was an important part of the context.

When people talk about jobs getting “feminized” they can mean many things — jobs becoming lower paid, lower status, flexible or precarious, demanding more emotional management and the cultivation of an “image,” blurring the boundary between “work” and “life.”

The increasing instability or insecurity of media workplaces only make women more vulnerable to the kinds of sexualized abuses of power the #MeToo hashtag was being used to talk about.

Spotify, eBay set standard for fertility benefits, study finds

The technology sector awards women and same-sex couples the most comprehensive fertility benefit packages, according to a survey by FertilityIQ, an online platform for fertility patients to review doctors and research treatments.

The company asked 30,000 in vitro fertilisation (IVF) patients across industries about their employers’ — or their spouse’s employer’s’ — 2019 fertility treatment policy, and allocated points based on their support for IVF procedures and egg freezing, among other services.

Silicon Valley semiconductor business Analog Devices and eBay led the ranking. The two companies offer employees unlimited IVF cycles with no pre-authorization requirement, meaning employees do not need permission from insurance providers before seeking certain medical services. Pre-authorization has historically impacted lesbian, gay or unpartnered employees from accessing care quickly or at all, FertilityIQ co-founder Jake Anderson explained

Spotify, Adobe, Lyft, Facebook and Pinterest were amongst the highest-ranked technology businesses, too.

“I think a lot of people see the tech sector as being unenlightened when it comes to family values but it’s still the sector that makes the fertility benefits the most widely acceptable,” Anderson, a former consumer internet investor at Sequoia Capital, told TechCrunch.

FertilityIQ’s fertility benefits survey results.

Despite an initial outpouring of skepticism, Facebook and Apple became leaders in the fertility benefit category when they began paying for their female employees to freeze their eggs in 2014. Since then, smaller firms have opted to beef up those benefits to stay competitive with their much larger and richer counterparts.

“The Lyfts, the Airbnbs and the Ubers of the world, who clearly need to compete for those companies for talent, have effectively matched those companies dollar-for-dollar despite a much smaller war-chest,” Anderson said. “These companies that are worth 1/1000th of these bigger companies are effectively going toe-to-toe to offer whatever women need.”

Anderson and his wife, FertilityIQ co-founder Deborah Anderson, noticed improved benefits in 2018 from companies implicated by the #MeToo movement, such as Vice Media, Under Armour and Uber.

“Silicon Valley is notorious for talent moving around on you but it’s probably not coincidental that some of the companies that were in the spotlight in the #MeToo movement have added really generous benefits,” Deborah Anderson told TechCrunch.

Uber, for example, now pays for its employees to complete two IVF cycles but still requires pre-authorization.

One in 7 Americans struggle with infertility and the rate of IVF procedures only continues to increase, with the latest data indicating a 15 percent year-over-year growth rate. IVF costs roughly $22,000 per cycle, per FertilityIQ’s survey, a cost which has similarly increased 15 percent since 2015.

That’s a whole lot of cash for a fertility patient to dole out. If companies foot the bill, they’ll have a better shot at retaining talent.

“Best we can tell, there is no question that employees that get this benefit and use it are more loyal and more likely to stick around,” Jake Anderson said. “The company that helps you build your family is the company that you remain committed to.”