Robin Li, the founder and CEO of China’s biggest search engine site, Baidu, was recently nominated to become a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), a state-run research institution meant for the country’s top engineers.
But after the CAE announcement on April 30, many netizens took to the internet to voice their opposition, criticizing Li for running a company known for complying with the Chinese regime’s censorship rules and abetting fraudulent companies’ false advertising.
The CAE nominates new academicians every two years. Li was among a list of 531 nominees, along with Baidu’s senior vice president of artificial intelligence, Wang Haifeng.
The CAE academician system was established in 1994. It’s the highest academic title in engineering science and technology in China. Being an academician is a lifetime honor; they enjoy the same benefits and retirement packages as deputy ministers in the government.
Zhou Jian, the owner of a social media account that publishes news on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, published an article explaining why he believes Li isn’t worthy of the title.
He pointed to examples of Baidu profiting from unethical practices involving fraudulent hospitals.
The most notable case occurred in 2016, when Wei Zexi, a 21-year-old college student from northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province, died at a Chinese military hospital in Beijing after receiving an unapproved immunotherapy treatment that he found through Baidu’s online ads. Wei had a rare form of cancer known as synovial sarcoma.
Chinese media and netizens revealed that Baidu was generating advertising revenue from a Chinese medical syndicate known as “Putian Network,” which has a history of marketing fake medicine and treatments—including the one that caused Wei’s death. The hospital claimed that the treatment was proven to be 80 to 90 percent effective for curing the illness.
Beijing Evening News also reported an incident in 2013, when parents of a 3-year-old girl who had epilepsy searched for treatment via Baidu’s specially curated list of “recommended hospitals.”
After seeing that Haihua Hospital in Beijing was on the list as a facility with epilepsy treatment experts, her parents took her there and paid 20,000 yuan ($2,957) for treatment.
After about two weeks, the girl’s condition got more serious; she developed a high fever and constant convulsions. When the family no longer had money for treatment, the staff forced them to leave and dropped them off at the Beijing Children’s Hospital.
Doctors there did a check-up and declared that she was in critical condition. Their diagnosis showed that because of a lack of effective treatment, the little girl “was suffering from encephalitis, complicated by respiratory failure, brain dysfunction, etc. She could pass away at any time,” the Beijing Evening News reported.
Haihua Hospital had falsely advertised itself as a public hospital when it was, in fact, a privately run facility. In 2012, Beijing Epilepsy Treatment Association had revoked its membership for that reason. But Baidu listed the hospital as a well-recommended facility.
Due to the delay in sufficient treatment, the young girl’s brain was seriously damaged, though she survived after receiving life-changing treatment at the children’s hospital.
Others shared their opinions with NTD, part of the Epoch Media Group.
A Chinese netizen surnamed Zhang, from China’s Jilin Province, believed Baidu played a vital role in keeping free information out of China. “As a monopolizing internet giant, [Baidu] suffocated our rights to express ourselves. What we want to say can’t be published online, and the information we obtain from the internet is not reliable.”
Search results are either nonexistent or heavily restricted for topics that the Chinese regime deems taboo, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Another netizen surnamed Zheng from Xi’an City, Shaanxi Province, questioned Li’s credentials.
“Li is not a scientist, to begin with. How can he be elected as an academician? Chinese authorities choose some people to be academicians based on their needs from a political perspective,” he told NTD.
Baidu also came under fire in January for providing biased search results in favor of its own content aggregation service, called Baijiahao, after Chinese journalist Fang Kecheng documented the evidence in a series of social media posts.