Bashing Baidu, China’s largest internet search engine, has become almost a sport among Chinese social media users. The company has been called “the greatest evil of human nature” and a “human-eating machine”—not your average complaints from annoyed tech users.

The latest example illustrates just how keen has become Baidu to defend its reputation: GQ Daily, the Chinese edition of lifestyle magazine GQ, sparked the ire of the tech titan by inviting their WeChat followers to describe their misadventures with Baidu services. The company acted promptly by suing them for RMB 5 million.

An unhealthy connection

What seems like a slight overreaction on Baidu’s side has deeper and darker roots. GQ Daily poked fun at Baidu after a social media post revealed that Baidu Maps search results offered the address of a private hospital run by the controversial Putian Medical Group instead of a state hospital.

Putian controls many of China’s private hospitals and offers special treatments in public hospitals. It was one of these treatments that cancer patient Wei Zexi sought after noticing a paid advertisement at the top of his Baidu search. In April 2016, following a dubious experimental therapy,  the 21-year-old university student died, but not before leaving a scathing social media post blaming the hospital and Baidu.

China’s internet exploded with outrage over the company’s perceived lack of supervision over sales of medical ads. Chinese state media joined the chorus, while authorities formed a task force to investigate the case bringing in Baidu’s CEO Robin Li for a talk.

Baidu CEO Robin Li. Image credit: Baidu
Baidu CEO Robin Li (Image credit: Baidu)

“In this case, to me, it was obvious that the anger that was directed at Baidu was out of proportion with Baidu’s crime,” said Baidu’s former communications officer Kaiser Kuo during a recent episode of the China Tech Talk podcast.

Kuo, who spent six years with the company, believes that Baidu was scapegoated by authorities to avoid lashing out on China’s scandal-ridden health care system. The incident, however, can also be viewed as a tragic culmination of a series of controversies related to medical and health care ads which used to comprise 20 to 30 percent of the company’s search revenue.

Baidu’s health troubles started in 2010 when it was accused of promoting counterfeit drugs through its search engine. Four years later, the company was sued by a man who used the search engine to seek out a cure for his homosexuality but ended up traumatized by an electroshock therapy in a conversion clinic. The company was acquitted but was warned against advertising dubious medical practices.

In January 2016, Baidu tried to boosts its revenues by selling moderating rights to some of its chat rooms on Baidu Post Bar, or Tieba, to private owners. At least one of the chat rooms dedicated to serious diseases reported being bombarded by ads for dodgy medical institutions, while negative comments were deleted. After news broke out, Baidu’s CEO Robin Li apologized and promised to “reflect deeply.”

Baidu’ing the truth

Baidu’s search results were a subject of scrutiny even before the medical scandals. The first long shadow cast over the company’s reputation was China’s most infamous food safety scandal. In 2008, six infants died from kidney damage, while another 300,000 were affected after drinking an infant formula produced by Sanlu Group tainted by melamine. Baidu was accused of deleting negative reports about the company for commercial reasons. Rumors broke out that Sanlu was paying RMB 3 million for the service.

Baidu’s involvement was quickly denied and no evidence was uncovered to support the accusations, but media investigations found that the company does indeed allow bidding for rankings in its search engine, enabling companies who pay more to get on top and keeping those that don’t low. Aside from that, documents emerged showing that Baidu also offered PR services such as deleting negative information.

In the following year, the Chinese blogosphere got a chance to examine documents leaked from Baidu’s internal monitoring and censorship department, including a list of words and phrases that should be monitored, revealing the extent to which online content is sanitized.

It is not surprising then that in 2010 when Google announced its departure from China because of government mandated information filtering, doubts rose over Baidu’s involvement. At that point, for many Chinese internet users, Google’s “Don’t be evil” slogan and their decision to withdraw stood in contrast to Baidu’s pragmatism–and so Baidu became “evil.”

Kaiser Kuo ar CHINICT. Image credit: Wikimedia commons
Sinica podcast host and former Baidu communications manager Kaiser Kuo at CHINICT (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“There is a kind of psychological habit that we have that when you have a narrative that casts one character as an obvious protagonist of the story,” said Kuo. “The narrative wasn’t exactly fair. There was never any evidence and it just wasn’t true that Baidu had something to do at all with Google’s decision to decamp from China. They were certainly the beneficiary of it but there was nothing sinister going on.”

However, Baidu’s questionable business practices, such as enabling piracy, copyright infringement, plagiarizing Wikipedia, and cheating on AI tests have not helped its case. Neither has the incident in which Baidu employees accepted bribes for deleting negative comments behind the company’s back, nor the lawsuit over censorship by US-based pro-democracy activists.

Changing tech tactics

For Kuo, Baidu is a company of great technology, but one in which sales are often done ineptly. PR has also been the company’s weak point. Baidu’s poor response over the death of young Wei Zixi coupled with failed opportunities to capitalize on several major tech trends has left experts wondering about its future. After the incident, Baidu was ordered to revise its medical ads policy at a time when web search ad revenues have already been shrinking.

But despite fears of becoming the “Yahoo of China,” Baidu still holds an undisputed place among China’s tech trinity BAT. Its search engine held 76.05% of China’s market in April 2017.

“Baidu’s reputation may have taken a hit after a series of scandals involving dodgy medical advertising, and the company is rightly perceived to be way behind Alibaba and Tencent in mobile and financial services,” Jeremy Goldkorn, Sinica podcast co-host and Editor in Chief of SupChina, told TechNode. “But Baidu still operates the Chinese internet’s best and most popular search engine, user generated encyclopedia, online map, and dozens of other services.”

Baidu's map collecting self-driving car
Baidu’s map collecting self-driving car. (Image credit: Linda Lew)

The company seems to be turning a new leaf both in technology and its business approach. Following the Putian scandal and Baidu’s sharp revenue loss, Robin Li called on employees to put values before profit and promised to re-evaluate every one of its products’ business models. Today, Baidu’s main focus is AI and autonomous driving. The company has recently reported good news: a profit leap of 47% in the second quarter of 2017. But can Baidu ever hope to correct its tarnished image among users?

For many Chinese, trust issues are just business as usual. As Guo Jianglong, the tech writer who first investigated bidding for Baidu’s search engine rankings in 2008, wrote, Baidu is an easy target for criticism comparing to huge state-owned corporations which govern the lives of ordinary people in China. Baidu is, in fact, far better than them, he adds.

“If you asked most urban Chinese if they would trust Baidu or a real estate company more, I believe—although I have not done research to back this up—that most would answer Baidu,” said Goldkorn.

Masha Borak is a technology reporter based in Beijing. Write to her at masha.borak [at] Pitches with the word "disruptive" will be ignored. Read a good book - learn some more adjectives.

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