Baidu sues comedian over online joke about CEO Robin Li

Society & Culture

Baidu, the Chinese internet services conglomerate and the fourth-most-visited website in the world, is suing a Beijing-based humor writer for making a joke about its co-founder and chief executive, Robin Li 李彦宏. The company claims the joke was defamatory and has caused significant damage to the company’s reputation and public image.

According to the anonymous @七点半的独角戏, who describes himself as a comedian and humor blogger in his Weibo bio, the joke that drew the internet giant’s ire was first published in May as a post on his personal microblog, and was up for only three days before it was removed by Weibo, which is owned by Sina.

Here’s what the joke said:

baidu joke

Baidu released a statement denying rumors that Robin Li has a mistress and child out of wedlock, and have filed a report with the police. Reports state that Baidu found the internet’s top-ranking police bureau. Presently, the case has progressed to the transfer-money-to-Officer-Wang stage.

It’s fine if you find the joke incomprehensible, because it’s multilayered and brilliantly subtle. To decode its meaning, you first need to know that there were rumors swirled in May about Li’s family and his dating life, which prompted Baidu to publicly dismiss what it called “malicious rumors” and threaten to sue people who continue to create more rumors and spread them. These are facts.

But the second part of the joke is pure comedic writing that makes no attempt to pass itself off as fact. It’s a scathing roast of a deeply questionable yet common practice at Baidu, which purposefully mixes paid content from advertisers with search results and often offers the top spot in online searches to the highest bidder, without checking their background. This irresponsible practice was brought to the public’s attention in 2016 by Wei Zexi 魏则西, a 21-year-old cancer patient who, before his death, wrote a post detailing how he received expensive yet ineffective treatments from a sketchy hospital recommended by Baidu in a promoted search result.

Given that @七点半的独角戏 says explicitly in his bio that his style is dividing a joke into two parts, facts and satire, it’s obvious that he didn’t intend to confuse anyone into thinking that the joke was real news. But Baidu still found it offensive enough to warrant legal action.

In August, Baidu and its legal team sent a letter to @七点半的独角戏, informing the comedian of a defamation suit filed against him in court. They demanded the blogger pay 5 million yuan ($733,000) for slanderous remarks, publish an apology on Weibo, and make it a pinned post for 30 days. Accompanying the notice was a list of positive coverage of Baidu by various media, which confused the comedian. “I still don’t understand what these articles have to do with the suit,” he said.

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The comedian also said that while most people will resort to arbitration when sued by a powerful enterprise like Baidu, he has decided to confront the company in court. “As a comedy writer loosely involved in the circle of stand-up comedians, I knew long ago how difficult it is to do satire in such an environment. But I didn’t realize that it had deteriorated to such a degree. I have no idea what will happen next if we are not allowed to ridicule Baidu,” he said (in Chinese) in a Weibo post. “I can’t afford to lose this case. My failure will harm the whole industry of stand-up comedy. And, more broadly…my lawyer suggested that I not bring it to a broader level.”

This post, according to @七点半的独角戏, will be his pinned post for the next three years.