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Baidu Scandal Brings Business Ethics to the Forefront

Chinese search engine Baidu is under scrutiny after the death of a 21-year-old cancer patient. Many netizens blame Baidu for offering advertised space to fraudulent doctors. At the core of the Baidu Scandal lies the question: to what extent is Baidu responsible for the health of Chinese netizens?

Manya Koetse

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China’s biggest search engine Baidu is under scrutiny after the death of a 21-year-old cancer patient who was allegedly given false hope for getting better because of Baidu’s paid search results. Many netizens blame Baidu for offering advertised space to fraudulent doctors. At the core of the online discussion lies the question: to what extent is Baidu responsible for the health of China’s netizens?

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”.

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The family of Wei Zexi is heartbroken after the student’s death. Chinese media posted multiple pictures of the day of Wei Zexi’s funeral.

 
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.

Paid Search

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).

zhihu

It is different for Google Adwords, that has stricter policies about the promotion of healthcare and medicine on Google services:

googlehealthcare

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.

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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.

baidu drop

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.”

– By Manya Koetse

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Featured image: by Weibo user Duanzi.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Rob

    May 4, 2016 at 1:24 am

    Baidu has issues; it is absolutely China-biased, and while the advert system may not be as strict, the same procedure would show up in the list of options and alternatives no matter what.

    What Wei is not doing is taking responsible for his own short-comings, and what should be at the fore here is the lack of effective researching and critical thinking skills taught to students. I had to institute researching and citation as a course for my freshmen because it did not exist and no one taught it until maybe their 4th year; this is certainly lacking in education.

    On top of this, many Chinese medical practices are questionable in general; there are doctors who promote C-sections even knowing that natural birth is preferred and has fewer complications because it is more profitable; other doctors are promoting a pharmacological solution to problems that do not need them because it is more profitable; doctors take bribes to arrange for treatments (a friend who severed his patellar ligament in Beijing had to pay 2000 RMB in gas cards to just to get into a hospital bed, even though he had insurance to cover all the expenses of the surgery and hospital stay). This to me is less an issue of Baidu and more an issue of a profit-driven, eminently corrupt, and generally ignorant medical system (and I say this as someone with a medical background who has had to use the system in Beijing both for myself and with friends).

    Wei was foolish; where was his due diligence? Yes, I get that he was dying and looking for solutions, but how may solutions did he look for? Did he check this procedure with other doctors at other hospitals? Or, like many of my students, did he simply jump on the first answer he found and followed it through to its natural result?

    If anything, this shows shortcomings in both medicine and education. Let’s stop pointing the finger at Baidu (it’s a shitty carpenter who blames his tools) and start pointing the finger where it belongs.

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China Digital

Must-Read: SCMP’s China Internet Report 2020

The China Internet Report brings order to the chaos of China’s ever-changing digital environment. There’s a special What’s on Weibo discount for the Pro-edition.

Manya Koetse

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First published

SCMP Research’s China Internet Report 2020 is here, covering the country’s biggest tech trends, breaking down the major players and key markets, and bringing some order to the chaos of China’s rapidly changing digital environment.

Today, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) has launched its third edition of the China Internet Report – a super-comprehensive resource on China’s technology landscape offering insights into the most important trends and players shaping the world’s biggest internet community.

This year, China’s online population has reached the staggering number of 904 million users, with the average daily time spent on the internet rising to 7.2 hours in March.

COVID-19 has significantly increased online media consumption across China.

China’s rapid digitization has not just radically altered Chinese society – it is also increasingly impacting the global internet ecosystem at large.

With yesterday’s local startups becoming tomorrow’s international tech leaders, and today’s trends soon becoming worldwide shifts, understanding China’s latest digital developments has never been more important.

The new coronavirus outbreak in China has not just temporarily affected people’s online behavior, the report finds, suggesting that COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on China’s tech sectors.

Besides social media platforms and other apps becoming a crucial tool of mass communication and information for Chinese netizens in times of COVID-19, the pandemic also changed how people in China started using technology in their everyday lives, from online learning to digital healthcare seeking. These trends have brought about permanent changes.

The accelerated digitization and the innovative tech use in times of the coronavirus crisis are listed as one of the major trends of 2020, among other vital digital shifts changing China’s online landscape, from the mass adoption of 5G to live streaming in China reaching its third phase.

To check out the main trends for 2020, China’s latest internet statistics, its top tech competitors, internet companies, and more, here’s a link to the report.

This year, in addition to the free report, SCMP Research also introduces its Pro Edition (US$400) that features more than a hundred pages of deep-dive per sector – from e-commerce to healthtech, 5G and more – providing additional analysis, data, as well as access to six closed-door webinars with leading C-level executives of internet and technology companies in China.

The folks at SCMP have been kind enough to reach out and offer a special 30% discount on the Pro Edition report for What’s on Weibo readers.

You’ll get the discount by using the discount code: “WHATSONWEIBO“, or by clicking this link that will automatically include your discount code.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Digital

From Tea Farmer to Online Influencer: Uncle Huang and China’s Rural Live Streamers

‘Cunbo’ aka ‘rural livestreaming’ is all the rage. A win-win situation for farmers, viewers, and Alibaba.

Manya Koetse

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This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “VOM TEEBAUERN ZUM INFLUENCER: ONKEL HUANG UND CHINAS LÄNDLICHE LIVESTREAMER.” 

The past year has been super tumultuous when it comes to the topics that have been dominating Chinese social media. The Coronavirus crisis was preceded by other big issues that were all the talk online, from the US-China trade war to the protests in Hong-Kong, the swine flu, and heightened censorship and surveillance.

Despite the darker side to China’s online environment, however, there were also positive developments. One of the online trends that became popular this year comes with a term of its own, namely cūnbō (村播): rural livestreaming.  Chinese farmers using livestreaming as a way to sell their products and promote their business have become a more common occurrence on China’s e-commerce and social media platforms. 

mage via Phoenix News (iFeng Finance).

The social media + e-commerce mix, also called ‘social shopping,’ is booming in the PRC. Online platforms where the lines between social media and e-commerce have disappeared are now more popular than ever. There’s the thriving Xiaohongshu (小红书Little Red Book) platform, for example, but apps such as TikTok (known as Douyin in China) also integrate shopping in the social media experience.

Over recent years, China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba has contributed to the rising popularity of ‘social shopping.’ Its Taobao Live unit (also a separate app), which falls under the umbrella of China’s biggest online marketplace Taobao, is solely dedicated to shopping + social media, mainly mobile-centered. It’s a recipe for success: Chinese mobile users spend over six hours online per day, approximately 72% of them shop online, and nearly 65% of mobile internet users watch livestreaming.

Every minute of every day, thousands of online shoppers tune in to dozens of different channels where sellers promote anything from food products to makeup or pet accessories. The sellers, also called ‘hosts’ or ‘presenters,’ make their channels attractive by incorporating makeup tutorials, cooking classes, giving tips and tricks, chatting away and joking, and promising their buyers the best deal or extra presents when purchasing their products.                

Livestreaming on Taobao goes on 24/7 (screenshots from Taobao app by author).

Sometimes thousands of viewers tune in to one channel at the same. They can ‘follow’ their favorite hosts and can interact with them directly by leaving comments on the livestreams. They can compliment the hosts (“You’re so funny!”), ask questions about products (“Does this also come in red?”), or leave practical advice (“You should zoom in when demonstrating this product!”). The product promoted in the livestreams can be directly purchased through the Taobao system.

Over the past year, Alibaba has increased its focus on rural sellers within the livestreaming e-commerce business. Countryside sellers even have their own category highlighted on the Taobao Live app. Chinese tech giant Alibaba launched its ‘cūnbō project’ in the spring of 2019 to promote the use of its Taobao Live app amongst farmers. The most influential livestreaming farmers get signed by Alibaba to elevate Taobao Live’s rural business to a higher level.

One of these influential Chinese farmers who has made a name for himself through livestreaming is Huang Wensheng, a tea farmer from the mountainous Lichuan area in Hunan Province.

Uncle Huang livestreaming from the tea fields (image via Sohu.com)

Huang, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle Farmer,’ sells tea through his channel, where he shows viewers his work and shares stories and songs from his village. He is also known to talk about what he learned throughout his life and will say things such as: “It is important to work hard; not necessarily so much to change the world , but to make sure the world does not change you.”

With just three to five livestreaming sessions per week, ‘Uncle’ Huang reaches up to twenty million viewers per month, and, according to Chinese media reports, has seen a significant increase in his income, earning some 10,000 yuan (€1300) per week.

Huang is not the only farmer from his hometown using Taobao Live to increase their income; there are some hundred rural livestreamers in Lichuan doing the same.

Some random screenshots by author from rural livestreaming channels, where online shoppers get a glimpse of countryside life

The rural livestreaming category is significantly different from the urban fashionistas selling brand makeup and the latest must-haves: these hosts do not have the polished look, glamorous clothes, or stylish backgrounds. They usually film outside while doing their work or offer a glimpse into their often humble rooms or kitchens.

Viewers get to see the source of the products sold by these rural sellers; they often literally go to the fields to show where their agricultural products grow, or film themselves getting the eggs from their chickens or the oranges from the trees. From fruits to potatoes and flowers, and from fresh tea to home-made chili sauce – a wide range of products is promoted and sold through Taobao Live these days.

Some rural livestreamers are trying to stay ahead of their competition by coming up with novel concepts. A young farmer from Sichuan, for example, recently offered viewers the opportunity to “adopt” a rooster from his farm, allowing them to interact with ‘their’ rooster through social media and even throwing the occasional birthday party for some lucky roosters.

Image via sina.com.

Examples such as these show that although the countryside livestreamers usually lack glitter and glam, they can be just as entertaining – or perhaps even more so – than their urban counterparts.

Who benefits from the recent ‘cūnbōboom? One could argue that the rising popularity of livestreaming farmers is a win-win situation from which all participants can profit in some way. The commercial interests are big for Alibaba. The company has been targeting China’s countryside for years, as it’s where China’s biggest consumption growth will happen while mobile internet penetration is still on the rise. Alibaba earns profits from an increasing number of rural e-commerce buyers, as well as e-commerce sellers.

Alibaba’s early focus on the countryside as a new home for e-commerce has previously also led to the phenomenon of so-called ‘Taobao Villages,’ where a certain percentage of rural residents are selling local specialties, farm products or other things via the Taobao platform with relatively little transaction costs.

Many Chinese villages and farmers are profiting from the further spread of Taobao in the countryside. Not only does Alibaba invest in logistics and e-commerce trainings in rural areas, these e-commerce channels are also a way to directly boost sales and income for struggling farmers.

Chinese media predict that the rural livestreaming trend will only become more popular in the years to come, bringing forth many more influential farmers like Huang.

But besides the commercial and financial gains that come from the rising popularity of rural livestreamers, there is also a significant and noteworthy social impact.  At  a time in which China’s rapidly changing society sees a widening gap between urban and rural areas, these rural channels serve as a digital bridge between countryside sellers and urban consumers, offering netizens a real and unpolished look into the lives of farmers in others parts of the country, and gives online buyers more insight and understanding of where their online products came from.

Taobao Live is actually like a traditional “farmers’ market,” but now it is digital, open 24/7, and accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. It’s the Chinese farmers’ market of the 21st century.

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

This text was first published by Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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