BEIJING—A Chinese tech company pulled offline a virtual-reality avatar depicted as a flirtatious secretary in revealing clothes, hours after The Wall Street Journal asked whether such depictions encourage a view of women as sexual objects in the workplace. The virtual-assistant avatar, named “Vivi,” was in beta testing for a virtual-reality headset device sold by iQiyi, the online streaming unit of Baidu Inc., which owns China’s biggest internet search engine.

Vivi was ostensibly intended to help users complete tasks via voice commands—such as selecting a film or videogame to play. But it could also flirt with users and respond to commands to dance, according to user reviews posted on Chinese gaming websites and online forums. “The most important thing is she can perform sexy dances, with her enchanting figure, and only for you,” one user wrote on Zhihu, a Chinese Q&A website.

After The Journal contacted iQiyi about Vivi, the company removed the avatar and said in a statement: “The earlier version of the product is a beta-testing version designed to gather users’ feedback. iQiyi has noticed the issue raised by media and already taken the product offline for further modification.

We’d like to make an apology for the concerns it might have raised.” The headset was originally announced in March, when Vivi was introduced as a “built-in AI ‘girlfriend’.” Revisions in October placed her in an office setting. One image posted on Grapefruit Games, a gaming review website, shows “the boss” reaching out and touching Vivi’s breast with a virtual hand.

Inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace has been under the spotlight in the U.S. recently, following disclosures involving high-profile business executives, media personalities and celebrities. The #metoo campaign—a two-word hashtag used in social media encouraging women to speak out about sexual harassment—hasn’t been as widespread in China.

That is because, in part, workplace sexual harassment is commonplace, said author

Leta Hong Fincher. Her forthcoming book—“Betraying Big Brother: The Rise of China’s Feminist Resistance”—examines feminism and gender discrimination in China. Read more from…

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