Updated: Jun 27, 2020
By Wilson Wang
In June of 2016, Baidu, China’s leading search engine, was on the headlines in the news for its possible complicity in the death of a 21-year-old cancer patient Wei Zexi. Wei spent more than 200,000 Renminbi (RMB) at the Beijing Armed Police Corps No. 2 Hospital to receive an ineffective and contested form of immunotherapy. The hospital and this treatment were both promoted on Baidu.
His death created major controversy in social media and among medical professionals surrounding the cause of Wei’s tragic death and whether Baidu should be held responsible. More importantly, his death begs the question: why did the hospital offer such ineffectual treatment?
Further investigation has shown that the hospital Wei received his treatment from belongs to Putian Medical Group, an organized group of entrepreneurs from Putian, Fujian province that dominates most of China’s private hospitals. These hospitals, though mostly licensed, have poor regulations and often incite controversy regarding their unsafe practices. These hospitals are infamous in China for treating stigmatized conditions, especially sex-related diseases such as STIs or erectile dysfunction.
On top of their disconcerting practices, Putian hospitals have also been reported to charge exorbitantly large sums of money from their patients. Some of these patients, however, are later diagnosed by public hospitals as completely healthy with no complications, raising doubts about the diagnoses and qualifications of physicians working at the Putian hospitals.
The materialistic nature of Putian hospitals is evident. Perhaps no other incident better points to the aforementioned egregious deficiencies than when a Putian hospital fired a doctor for refusing to charge patients extremely high prices for readily available drugs.
What do these Putian hospitals and their nefarious practices have to do with Baidu? Baidu has a feature that businesses can invest in to raise their search result placement. Putian hospitals, despite their evidently low quality in comparison to other local prestigious hospitals, have consistently ranked at the top of result rankings. Why? It was reported that Putian hospitals have contributed close to 12 billion RMB of the total 26 billion RMB in ad revenues reported by Baidu in 2013.
Despite the extensive investigations into Putian hospitals, the morally ambiguous partnership between Baidu and Putian hospitals is ongoing. In fact, Baidu recently requested Putian to increase their annual investment in Baidu marketing by almost 20 percent.
With a striking lack of internet regulation by the Chinese government and Baidu’s flawed business-centric system for search rankings, Putian hospitals continue to thrive by manipulating Chinese citizens.
The past, present, and expected future subversion of healthcare for the billions of citizens in China begs one important question: when, how, and to what extent can we work to provide all these Chinese people with the inalienable human right to safe healthcare?