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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 founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    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 Brands, Marketing & Consumers

A Brew of Controversy: Lu Xun and LELECHA’s ‘Smoky’ Oolong Tea

Chinese tea brand LELECHA faced backlash for using the iconic literary figure Lu Xun to promote their “Smoky Oolong” milk tea, sparking controversy over the exploitation of his legacy.

Manya Koetse

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It seemed like such a good idea. For this year’s World Book Day, Chinese tea brand LELECHA (乐乐茶) put a spotlight on Lu Xun (鲁迅, 1881-1936), one of the most celebrated Chinese authors the 20th century and turned him into the the ‘brand ambassador’ of their special new “Smoky Oolong” (烟腔乌龙) milk tea.

LELECHA is a Chinese chain specializing in new-style tea beverages, including bubble tea and fruit tea. It debuted in Shanghai in 2016, and since then, it has expanded rapidly, opening dozens of new stores not only in Shanghai but also in other major cities across China.

Starting on April 23, not only did the LELECHA ‘Smoky Oolong” paper cups feature Lu Xun’s portrait, but also other promotional materials by LELECHA, such as menus and paper bags, accompanied by the slogan: “Old Smoky Oolong, New Youth” (“老烟腔,新青年”). The marketing campaign was a joint collaboration between LELECHA and publishing house Yilin Press.

Lu Xun featured on LELECHA products, image via Netease.

The slogan “Old Smoky Oolong, New Youth” is a play on the Chinese magazine ‘New Youth’ or ‘La Jeunesse’ (新青年), the influential literary magazine in which Lu’s famous short story, “Diary of a Madman,” was published in 1918.

The design of the tea featuring Lu Xun’s image, its colors, and painting style also pay homage to the era in which Lu Xun rose to prominence.

Lu Xun (pen name of Zhou Shuren) was a leading figure within China’s May Fourth Movement. The May Fourth Movement (1915-24) is also referred to as the Chinese Enlightenment or the Chinese Renaissance. It was the cultural revolution brought about by the political demonstrations on the fourth of May 1919 when citizens and students in Beijing paraded the streets to protest decisions made at the post-World War I Versailles Conference and called for the destruction of traditional culture[1].

In this historical context, Lu Xun emerged as a significant cultural figure, renowned for his critical and enlightened perspectives on Chinese society.

To this day, Lu Xun remains a highly respected figure. In the post-Mao era, some critics felt that Lu Xun was actually revered a bit too much, and called for efforts to ‘demystify’ him. In 1979, for example, writer Mao Dun called for a halt to the movement to turn Lu Xun into “a god-like figure”[2].

Perhaps LELECHA’s marketing team figured they could not go wrong by creating a milk tea product around China’s beloved Lu Xun. But for various reasons, the marketing campaign backfired, landing LELECHA in hot water. The topic went trending on Chinese social media, where many criticized the tea company.

 
Commodification of ‘Marxist’ Lu Xun
 

The first issue with LELECHA’s Lu Xun campaign is a legal one. It seems the tea chain used Lu Xun’s portrait without permission. Zhou Lingfei, Lu Xun’s great-grandson and president of the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation, quickly demanded an end to the unauthorized use of Lu Xun’s image on tea cups and other merchandise. He even hired a law firm to take legal action against the campaign.

Others noted that the image of Lu Xun that was used by LELECHA resembled a famous painting of Lu Xun by Yang Zhiguang (杨之光), potentially also infringing on Yang’s copyright.

But there are more reasons why people online are upset about the Lu Xun x LELECHA marketing campaign. One is how the use of the word “smoky” is seen as disrespectful towards Lu Xun. Lu Xun was known for his heavy smoking, which ultimately contributed to his early death.

It’s also ironic that Lu Xun, widely seen as a Marxist, is being used as a ‘brand ambassador’ for a commercial tea brand. This exploits Lu Xun’s image for profit, turning his legacy into a commodity with the ‘smoky oolong’ tea and related merchandise.

“Such blatant commercialization of Lu Xun, is there no bottom limit anymore?”, one Weibo user wrote. Another person commented: “If Lu Xun were still alive and knew he had become a tool for capitalists to make money, he’d probably scold you in an article. ”

On April 29, LELECHA finally issued an apology to Lu Xun’s relatives and the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation for neglecting the legal aspects of their marketing campaign. They claimed it was meant to promote reading among China’s youth. All Lu Xun materials have now been removed from LELECHA’s stores.

Statement by LELECHA.

On Chinese social media, where the hot tea became a hot potato, opinions on the issue are divided. While many netizens think it is unacceptable to infringe on Lu Xun’s portrait rights like that, there are others who appreciate the merchandise.

The LELECHA controversy is similar to another issue that went trending in late 2023, when the well-known Chinese tea chain HeyTea (喜茶) collaborated with the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum to release a special ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ (佛喜) latte tea series adorned with Buddha images on the cups, along with other merchandise such as stickers and magnets. The series featured three customized “Buddha’s Happiness” cups modeled on the “Speechless Bodhisattva” (无语菩萨), which soon became popular among netizens.

The HeyTea Buddha latte series, including merchandise, was pulled from shelves just three days after its launch.

However, the ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ success came to an abrupt halt when the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Shenzhen intervened, citing regulations that prohibit commercial promotion of religion. HeyTea wasted no time challenging the objections made by the Bureau and promptly removed the tea series and all related merchandise from its stores, just three days after its initial launch.

Following the Happy Buddha and Lu Xun milk tea controversies, Chinese tea brands are bound to be more careful in the future when it comes to their collaborative marketing campaigns and whether or not they’re crossing any boundaries.

Some people couldn’t care less if they don’t launch another campaign at all. One Weibo user wrote: “Every day there’s a new collaboration here, another one there, but I’d just prefer a simple cup of tea.”

By Manya Koetse

[1]Schoppa, Keith. 2000. The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. New York: Columbia UP, 159.

[2]Zhong, Xueping. 2010. “Who Is Afraid Of Lu Xun? The Politics Of ‘Debates About Lu Xun’ (鲁迅论争lu Xun Lun Zheng) And The Question Of His Legacy In Post-Revolution China.” In Culture and Social Transformations in Reform Era China, 257–284, 262.

Independently reporting China trends for over a decade. Like what we do? Support us and get the story behind the hashtag by subscribing:

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

Zara Dress Goes Viral in China for Resemblance to Haidilao Apron

Who’s gonna buy this Zara dress in China? “I’m afraid that someone will say I stole the apron from Haidilao.”

Manya Koetse

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A short dress sold by Zara has gone viral in China for looking like the aprons used by the popular Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao.

“I really thought it was a Zara x Haidialo collab,” some customers commented. Others also agree that the first thing they thought about when seeing the Zara dress was the Haidilao apron.

The “original” vs the Zara dress.

The dress has become a popular topic on Xiaohongshu and other social media, where some images show the dress with the Haidilao logo photoshopped on it to emphasize the similarity.

One post on Xiaohongshu discussing the dress, with the caption “Curious about the inspiration behind Zara’s design,” garnered over 28,000 replies.

Haidilao, with its numerous restaurants across China, is renowned for its hospitality and exceptional customer service. Anyone who has ever dined at their restaurants is familiar with the Haidilao apron provided to diners for protecting their clothes from food or oil stains while enjoying hotpot.

These aprons are meant for use during the meal and should be returned to the staff afterward, rather than taken home.

The Haidilao apron.

However, many people who have dined at Haidilao may have encountered the following scenario: after indulging in drinks and hotpot, they realize they are still wearing a Haidilao apron upon leaving the restaurant. Consequently, many hotpot enthusiasts may have an ‘accidental’ Haidilao apron tucked away at home somewhere.

This only adds to the humor of the latest Zara dress looking like the apron. The similarity between the Zara dress and the Haidilao apron is actually so striking, that some people are afraid to be accused of being a thief if they would wear it.

One Weibo commenter wrote: “The most confusing item of this season from Zara has come out. It’s like a Zara x Haidilao collaboration apron… This… I can’t wear it: I’m afraid that someone will say I stole the apron from Haidilao.”

Funnily enough, the Haidilao apron similarity seems to have set off a trend of girls trying on the Zara dress and posting photos of themselves wearing it.

It’s doubtful that they’re actually purchasing the dress. Although some commenters say the dress is not bad, most people associate it too closely with the Haidilao brand: it just makes them hungry for hotpot.

By Manya Koetse

Independently reporting China trends for over a decade. Like what we do? Support us and get the story behind the hashtag by subscribing:

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©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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