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Baidu controls roughly 70% of China’s search engine market. (Picture: AP)

Chinese netizens oppose Baidu CEO’s candidacy for top academic honor

Past search ad scandals have a lingering effect on the reputation of Baidu co-founder Robin Li

This article originally appeared on ABACUS
If Google CEO Sundar Pichai ever became a member of the US-based National Academy of Engineering, you probably wouldn’t see many people protesting the move. In China, however, news that Baidu CEO Robin Li is one of 531 new candidates for China’s Academy of Engineering’s has triggered public outrage.

Meet Baidu, China’s homegrown search engine

The academy is an advisory body under China’s State Council. Its members, referred to as academicians, are usually considered the top of their field and are widely respected in China. But past Baidu controversies are now complicating things for Li.

“If people like Robin Li can be an academician, it’s the start of this country collapsing,” one Weibo user wrote in a comment that’s received more than 180 likes.

Similar comments saying that the CEO doesn’t deserve to be an academician are also flooding social media, with netizens asking the Academy to not select him as a final member.

People’s anger towards Li and Baidu goes back to 2016, when a university student died after undergoing a cancer treatment found in a promoted search result on Baidu. The search engine was then ordered to clean up its medical ads and scale back from ranking search results in favor of higher bidders.

The problem wasn’t completely solved, though.

Baidu controls roughly 70% of China’s search engine market. (Picture: AP)
Just last year, users were once again reminded of Baidu’s heavily promoted sponsored search results. One writer scolded Baidu and Li on Weibo after she searched for the US consulate in Shanghai only to find a page of ads with no link to the official site. Baidu later apologized.
In January, an article also accused Baidu of prioritizing results from its own blog-style platform Baijiahao. The article titled “Search engine Baidu is dead” was widely shared on social media. Baidu responded by saying that less than 10% of its search results are from Baijiahao.
There’s still no guarantee Li will join the academy. It’s possible only a few dozen of the candidates will be chosen. In the last selection round in 2017, just 67 of 533 candidates were chosen. That year, Bill Gates was elected for his role as founder of TerraPower, which has a partnership with the China National Nuclear Corporation.
China’s Association for Science and Technology, which nominated Li for the academy, reportedly told Chinese media that Li was nominated based on his contribution to search engine development.
“Baidu really is a company with a conscience… It has built a search engine that’s unique to our country,” reads one sarcastic Weibo comment with more than 600 likes. “It has made great ‘contributions’ to our country’s medical industry and advertising industry.”

This seems to be the attitude of many Chinese netizens, with whom Li may never be able to shake his poor reputation, regardless of professional achievements.

“Even if you cannot judge one’s technical skills, everybody can sense a person’s merit,” says one response to a question on Q&A site Zhihu that’s received more than 2,400 upvotes.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.