Wei Zexi (魏则西) was a 21-year old student suffering a rare form of cancer called synovial sarcoma. After several unsuccessful treatments, he turned to search engine Baidu. Through one of Baidu’s paid results, Wei found a treatment at the Beijing Armed Police Corps No. 2 Hospital (武警二院) he thought could help him. According to CRI News, his friends and family came up with the 200,000 RMB (31,000US$) for the treatment, that later turned out to be ineffective and highly contested. Wei Zexi has since passed away last month.
The Wei Zexi Incident
The matter became trending on Sina Weibo on May 2 under the hashtag of ‘The Wei Zexi Incident’ (#魏则西事件#), with thousands of netizens blaming Baidu for offering a platform to shady health care providers.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the treatment that was advertised on Baidu was promoted as “the world’s most advanced”.
Before Wei Zexi died, he posted his story on China’s popular Q&A website Zhihu on February 26. In his post, he strongly criticized the hospital that treated him, and also condemned Baidu for providing them a platform. The post attracted many reactions in late February, and resurged now that news of Wei’s death became trending.
Chinese news site The Paper spoke to Wei’s mother, who told them that Wei had not posted his critique to make money, but for the sake of warning others not to rely on Baidu for medical information.
Baidu (百度, literally meaning: ‘hundred times’) is China’s equivalent to Google – which is blocked in mainland China. Although there are multiple search engine services in China, such as Sogou or 360, Baidu is the market leader. Similar to Google’s ‘Adwords’, Baidu makes big money by offering different kinds of advertising, including so-called Paid Search.
For Paid Search, advertisers can choose keywords that potential customers may use to search the products or services they offer. Their ads are then displayed at the top of the ‘related search’ result lists.
When searching for ‘the flu’ on Baidu, for example, search results will include an ad for Vicks and different links to medical clinics selling medicine or providing treatment. In Wei’s case, when he searched for his rare type of cancer, he got different sites promoting the treatment at the Beijing hospital. Only when one takes a closer look it says in small characters that it concerns a link that is ‘promoted’ (Paid Search).
It is different for Google Adwords, that has stricter policies about the promotion of healthcare and medicine on Google services:
Baidu’s social responsibility
This is the second time this year that Baidu is under scrutiny for its business ethics when it comes to advertising and medical information.
According to an online survey by Sina News, nearly half of China’s netizens (47.5%) think that Baidu should not allow medical care institutions to advertise on its search engine pages. 38.4% of the surveyees say that Baidu should inspect the quality of hospitals that appear in their search results. Only 2.8% of participants say that Baidu had no responsibility in the matter.
Many Weibo netizens vent their frustrations about Baidu and hope for a return of Google to China: “If Google would come back to China, I would never use Baidu again,” one netizen says. Other commenters remark: “Compared to Baidu, I have more trust in Google,” and: “Let Google come back!”
There are also netizens who think it is unfair that Baidu gets all the blame for fraudulent hospitals. “Why is Baidu being targeted for something that our administration system should be responsible for?”
Drop in stocks
For Baidu, the scandal is not over yet; its CEO will be summoned by Chinese authorities for further investigation of Baidu’s business ethics. The Baidu scandal has also affected the company’s stocks, that dropped almost 8 per cent after the incident.
For many netizens, the ‘Wei Zexi Incident’ has gone beyond Baidu, and is now about the limitations of China’s internet in general. As one netizen says: “People used to say, ‘we don’t need Google – we’ve got Baidu, we don’t need Facebook because we have Weibo, we don’t need YouTube, we’ve got Youku – it’s ok, it’s not like we could die for using China’s own internet!’ But apparently, we can die for using it.”
Featured image: by Weibo user Duanzi.
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