Chinese Internet Giant Baidu Under Investigation After Cancer Patient's Death

The search engine behemoth currently allows shady medical businesses to buy their way to the top of search rankings.

False medical advertising led Chinese regulators to send a team of investigators to internet giant Baidu's headquarters on Monday, following the death of a young cancer patient last month.

Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters

The college student Wei Zexi, 21, died of a rare form of soft tissues sarcoma. His death came after he received an experimental treatment advertised prominently on Baidu by the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police Corps, according to Reuters.

Weibo / Via

Wei, a Computer Science major at Xidian University in northwest China's Shaanxi province, blogged about the disease on Weibo and Q&A website Zhihu to "help those who need help to not experience the degree of suffering that I have gone through."

On Zhihu, he wrote that his parents spent about 200,000 yuan ($30,800), some borrowed, for the procedure. The treatment, which he wrote that he came across during a search on Baidu's search engine, was supposedly developed by Stanford University and could prolong his life expectation for at least another 20 years on a success rate of 80-90%, according to the doctor his family visited. The expensive treatment ultimately failed.

A student living in the U.S., Wei wrote, checked into the treatment on Google and found out that the therapy is out of use for its low success rate in the U.S. but somehow found its way to China, promoted as a new technology.

Wei's posts received thousands of comments, showering him with encouragement, medicine brought from overseas, small donations, and advise over what to do next. All the support brought him enough comfort that his father even logged onto the site using Wei's account to thank his fans.

The young man's death caused angry Internet users to point to a series of problems in China — a lack of regulations, the questionable search listing system used by the country's primary search engine, and the phenomenon of hospital monopolization by a small group of businessmen.

A spokesman for China's internet regulators stated that Wei's case has attracted extensive internet attention and the findings of the on-site investigation will be made public when appropriate.

Baidu, a NASDAQ-listed company, said it deeply regretted Wei's death and sent condolences to his family. The company's stock shares dropped from $179.95 to $176.50 on Monday morning. The company's search engine doesn't have obvious competitor in the market as Google is blocked in China.

"Like other search engines," Xinhua wrote, "Baidu earns money from selling links that appear in search results. The more an advertiser pays, the higher its ads will be ranked in the search results." Shady medical businesses are known to abuse that system by hiring people to click on others companies' links, prompting Baidu to charge their competitors a fee.

Chinese news outlets invented the term "Putian Gan" to refer to the private hospitals throughout the country owned by people from Putian, a prefecture-level city in Fujian Province that specialize mainly in men's health, gynecology, infertility, and plastic surgeries. Advertisements for these privately-owned hospitals are rampant on the sides of buses, telephone poles on the streets, as well as on TV during daytime and late-night time. A Sina News investigation found out that the "military hospital" that provided Wei's treatment is also owned by a pair of brothers from Putian, too.

"I didn't know how evil Baidu was, all the stuff about search listing ranking on medical information [...] I should have understood what it meant," Wei wrote on Zhihu, "but I didn't know a thing back then."

Earlier this year, Baidu was severely bashed by angry internet users for selling an unlicensed private hospital access to a Baidu forum that was the most easily accessible place for hemophilia patients to gather and share information. The hospital in return used the platform for self-promotion and deleted posts that challenged its credentials, reported various Chinese media.

According to Xinhua, private hospitals contributed an estimated advertising revenue of at least 10 billion yuan ($1.52 billion) to Baidu in the year of 2014.