Baidu threatens to sue a journalist for mentioning its past scandals

Society & Culture

Baidu, China’s top search engine, has come under intense fire after threatening a prominent Chinese journalist with legal action if he didn’t remove a “defamatory” blog post.

The article (in Chinese) in question, published by Wáng Ahìān 王志安, an experienced reporter and prolific writer with a focus on social issues, called out Baidu for its role in facilitating the rise of Quanjian, a dodgy Chinese healthcare products maker that is recently under investigation for operating a pyramid scheme and false marketing.

Titled “Quanjian should die, but it’s not the only one,” the article notes that the healthcare company didn’t thrive entirely on its own, and many other entities should also be held accountable for its deplorable action, such as corrupt government officials who took bribes from Quanjian to ensure its immunity from legal troubles, as well as Baidu, which allowed the fraudulent enterprise to show up in search results.

Quanjian’s problematic business was exposed in a bombshell article published last month by the popular health website Dingxiang Doctor. In the piece, Dingxiang Doctor said that the case was brought to its attention by the death of Zhōu Yáng 周洋, who died of cancer in 2015. Since then, Zhou’s father has been fighting a legal battle against Quanjian, which he accused of misleading the family over the potency of its anti-cancer treatment.

According to Wang, Quanjian’s story is reminiscent of Baidu’s scandal in 2016. In that year, 21-year-old cancer patient Wèi Zéxī 魏则西, before his death, wrote a post detailing how he was scammed by a sketchy hospital recommended by the search engine giant. The post caused a massive uproar from the public, which eventually placed Baidu’s questionable business model under scrutiny. “We appreciate the efficiency of the investigation of Quanjian. But we still want to warn the authorities that social governance can never be solely driven by negative public opinion,” Wang wrote.

Wang’s article was published January 4 on his pubic WeChat account. While Wang only mentioned Baidu twice throughout the entire piece and didn’t make it a main target of his criticism, the tech giant filed a complaint to Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, accusing Wang of “launching a malicious attack against Baidu’s image and reputation.” It also stated that Wang must retract and remove the post in question or face possible litigation.

Baidu has a history of pushing back against its critics. The internet services conglomerate can be hypersensitive, to the point where it sued a Beijing comedian last year for making a harmless joke about the Wei Zexi scandal.

To refute Baidu’s claims, Wang published an article (in Chinese) on January 17. Titled “Baidu, you’re welcome to sue me,” the piece is essentially a summary of a number of incidents caused by the tech giant’s failure to take down false and misleading information on its platform. In addition, Wang asserted that Baidu’s threats have no merit and that he is determined to defending the original article. “I know Baidu is powerful. It will probably sue me if I refuse to surrender. Bring it on. I will fight till the end,” Wang wrote. “I don’t believe a company can commit heinous crimes for such a long time without being properly punished. I don’t believe it is entitled to do whatever it wants.”

Three years ago, after the Wei Zexi scandal broke out, Baidu’s CEO Robin Li 李彦宏 apologized and vowed to “reflect deeply.” But his verbal regret never transformed into tangible action for the internet giant to crack down on deceptive and sometimes outright false information, or tighten its advertisement rules. Since 2016, Baidu has shot itself in the foot time and again, not only breaking its promises but showing that it can’t take any criticism.

“Baidu never changed. What it’s been doing all along is using every tool at its disposal to do evil. It sees nothing but profits. It puts greed over ethics and people,” Wang wrote (in Chinese) in a short Weibo post accompanying the rebuttal article, which resonated with a number of internet users.

One commenter replied, “Wang, I fully support you! If you lose the lawsuit, you should start a crowdfunding campaign so we can raise money for you. I’m willing to donate 100 yuan for the campaign to take down Baidu for good.”