Chinese search engine giant Baidu — which has been hit with a series of mishaps and financial losses this year, as well as being a general hot mess for a long time now — continues to find ways to shoot itself in the foot.
The latest example involves a now-fired editor, a terrible press release, and a lot of angry internet users.
But first, some background.
Zhang Zixin 章子欣, a nine-year-old girl, was reported missing to police on July 8. Millions of people across China paid close attention to the case, as search crews struggled to look for any trace of her.
Prior to Zhang’s disappearance, she lived with her grandparents in Hangzhou. Earlier this month, a middle-aged couple who had been renting rooms at her family’s house asked the girl’s grandfather if they could borrow her for a few days and take her to a wedding in Shanghai. Despite mild objections from the child’s father, Zhang’s grandfather agreed. According to the girl’s father, in the first few days of their trip, the couple was in regular contact with her family, and kept them posted of her whereabouts.
But on July 7, when the two were supposed to bring the girl back home, they dropped off the face of the earth. The family filed a missing person report with police on July 8. The same day, the couple was found drowned in a lake near Ningbo in what police ruled a double suicide. But the girl’s fate remained a mystery, one that kept haunting the country — until July 14, when authorities announced that a lifeless body had been found in the East China Sea.
As people were anxiously awaiting autopsy results, which later confirmed that the deceased girl was Zhang, a person who claimed to be Zhang’s father published a post on Baidu:
“I just learned that Zixin had left the world and is headed to heaven. In this life I was not lucky enough to continue being her father. But in next life I hope she will still be my daughter, and I will definitely take care of her better.”
The post instantly went viral, as it enraged and perplexed Chinese netizens at the same time. While some people raised questions about the real identity of the account owner, many others swiftly leapt to the conclusion that the father was a shameless attention-seeker who wanted to excuse himself from responsibility by engaging in performative grief. “You just lost your child and somehow you thought it was the right time to make such a post?” one internet user commented.
But, as it turns out, the condemnation was unwarranted. The girl’s father denied making the post in an interview with the Beijing News. Immediately afterwards, furious netizens directed their anger at Baidu, which they suspected of raking in traffic off the girl’s tragic death by fabricating an account which looked like it was owned by the girl’s father.
Faced with intense criticism, Baidu released its first statement about this issue on July 13, saying that the company created the account with the father’s acknowledgement and permission. “We are contacting Zixin’s father to have a better grasp of the situation,” the company said.
The statement, however, did little to quell the outrage, as many people continued accusing Baidu of beating around the bush and evading the question as to who actually wrote the post.
On the evening of July 13, Baidu felt obligated to issue another statement, saying that an internal investigation led to the discovery that an editor hijacked the father’s account and wrote the controversial post. “What this editor did was in blatant violation of management rules at Baidu News. We feel embarrassed and apologetic for harming the feelings of Zixi’s family and the public,” Baidu said, adding that the editor had been fired and that it would conduct a comprehensive review of its news team.
For those who somehow managed to miss this laughable moment two weeks ago, Baidu CEO Robin Li (李彦宏 Lǐ Yànhóng) received a surprise shower during his speech at the company’s annual Create AI developer conference on July 3. “What’s your problem,” Li asked with an admirable amount of composure.
When Li uttered those words, Baidu’s PR team undoubtedly let out a sigh of relief. But this latest ordeal with Baidu News has triggered a new wave of outrage on Chinese social media.
In the comment section of a news article published by Beijing Youth Newspaper, the 10 most upvoted comments all read, “What’s your problem?”