In China, building ‘guanxi’ – or personal relationships – is key to securing business deals or favorable opinion of superiors. China has a strong hierarchical structure in the workplace. This means being liked by superiors in the workplace determines opportunities to make career advancements.
China’s toxic workplace alcohol norm was highlighted in a report by a female employee of Alibaba. She reported being forced by her superiors to consume alcohol at a business dinner. Later she woke up unconscious in a hotel room with no recollection of what had happened. Security footage showed her manager entering her hotel room several times during the night.
While Alibaba fired the employee with a promise to never rehire him, there was not much done in terms of the law. Chinese prosecutors dropped the case and the Police kept the perpetrator in jail for 15 days only.
But this is not an isolated case. And the incident caught attention across Chinese social media bringing focusing in on toxic Chinese workplace culture and the alcohol norm. Many women have shared their fears of something happening to them during these forced alcohol rituals. As one woman shared with BBC News, sometimes people make inappropriate sexual jokes and she had to pretend to find it funny and laugh.
I always worry that things can get out of hand,” said a 26-year-old female public relations consultant based in Guangzhou, as per BBC.
Sometimes, people make inappropriate sexual jokes, and I have to pretend to find them funny.”
26-year-old female public relations consultant
Saying no to alcohol equals disrespect leading to trouble at the workplace
China’s guanxi related to the workplace is similar to Japan’s nomikai and South Korea’s hoesik gatherings. These gatherings occur outside the office and they are key to building workplace and business relations. Heavy alcohol use is expected from employees.
In China the gatherings take the form of lavish banquet dinners usually paired with the extremely potent Chinese liquor baijiu, which contains up to 60% alcohol.
Younger workers are expected to show respect to their superiors at these gatherings by making toasts with alcohol, and any businessperson hoping to impress their clients often follow the same rule. The more toasts a person makes the more favorable they appear in their superior’s or client’s eyes. All this at the cost of employees mental and physical well-being.
At times, senior managers pressure new employees to consume the manager’s share of alcohol as well. Since the workplace hierarchy is very strong, the new recruits cannot say no in fear of negative repercussions at work.
To refuse such an invite would be seen as extremely disrespectful, and no employee wishing to advance their career would dare consider rejecting the offer,” said Hanyu Liu, China market analyst from Daxue Consulting, as per BBC.
Hanyu Liu, China market analyst, Daxue Consulting
The cost of this harmful workplace alcohol norm in China is very high. There have been cases where employees died because of this norm.
- In January last year, a security guard in Shenzhen died after reportedly being pressured by his boss to participate in an alcohol use contest during dinner after work. His colleague, who was also forced to consume alcohol excessively at the same event, was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.
- In August last year, a young bank worker in Beijing said he was cursed at and slapped in the face after turning down an offer to have alcohol from a senior staff member at a banquet.
Alcohol harm in China
This toxic workplace alcohol norm adds to the larger burden of alcohol in China.
According to latest scientific evidence on alcohol and cancer,
- China had a larger alcohol-related cancer burden than the global average (4%).
- 282,300 cancer cases in China, or 6% of all cancers in the country, were caused by alcohol.
- The Eastern Asian region had one of the largest proportions of men affected by cancer due to alcohol (9%, 275,900 cases) in the world.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), recorded per capita alcohol consumption has been increasing in China from 1961 to 2016. Binge alcohol use is high in the country, with over one-third (40.7%) of alcohol users engaging in this especially harmful behavior.
In 2016, alcohol caused:
- over 83,000 deaths from liver cirrhosis,
- over 88,500 deaths from road traffic injury, and
- over 78,000 deaths from cancer, in China, according to the WHO Global Alcohol Status Report 2018, which is based on data from 2016.
Despite rising alcohol harm in the country, China has does not implement evidence-based alcohol policies. For instance, there is no national policy, minimum age for alcohol purchase, or regulations for on- and off-premise sale. Marketing is insufficiently regulated, only for advertising and not for sponsorships or promotions.
Alcohol use has been climbing in the country since the 1980s. Chinese officials are starting to notice national health problems due to the products and practices of the alcohol industry, that resemble those in Western countries. With brand new research exposing the harm caused by the alcohol industry, the government is expected to take action to improve alcohol policies to better protect the health and well-being of the Chinese people.
Changing the life threatening alcohol practice related to workplaces
In 2016, government officials cracked down on this practice among civil servants, banning them from touching alcohol during official duties. However, the tradition is continuing in many private workplaces.
The Alibaba case sparked public outcry since people learned of the incident very fast across social media. The public backlash is threatening for Chinese businesses in the current political climate with the government closely scrutinizing the corporate sector. Recently, the Chinese government acknowledged the alcohol-cancer link. Immediately after, investors started dumping alcohol industry stocks interpreting the government move as a signal of coming alcohol industry regulations.
In addition, people are increasingly demanding for companies to change the toxic workplace culture related to alcohol.
BBC reported that China’s anti-corruption watchdog has called for an end to this “disgusting” tradition, adding that it would strengthen oversight of Chinese companies to combat it.
In Japan, the toxic alcohol norm associated with the workplace is also slowly changing. Chinese companies will also have to follow suit or risk fallout with the public and possibly the government.