Kathrin Hille is an FT correspondent in Beijing, covering technology, the internet, media, telecoms and defence
China’s main state broadcaster has unleashed a series of attacks against Baidu, the country’s largest online search company, in a move certain to fuel concerns among foreign investors about the risks of operating in the Chinese internet industry.
In a barrage of investigative reports, microblog posts and commentary, CCTV criticizes Baidu as a “monopolist” which it alleges abuses its power and fails to manage content on its site in a responsible way.
The coverage coincided with CCTV’s soft launch of its own internet search engine and with its upcoming annual auction of advertising slots, leading some observers to assume that it might be trying to discredit a strong competitor.
“Could it really just be a coincidence that CCTV launches its own search engine and attacks Baidu at the same time?,” said Xie Wen, a former head of Yahoo China.
But given the broadcaster’s role as one of the ruling Communist party’s most authoritative propaganda mouthpieces, it is also raising fears that the campaign against Baidu could be the prelude to a full-fledged campaign to rectify the country’s vibrant but often chaotic internet sector.
The move comes at a time when the government has struggled to adjust its traditional propaganda approach as Chinese microblogs are increasingly empowering free speech.
“Investors in Chinese Internet stocks like Sina, Youku, Sohu, Tencent, Alibaba et al should be wondering if Baidu is the only target of this CCTV campaign, or if other firms are next,” said Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based investor, in a blog post.
On Wednesday, CCTV set up a special page on its website under the headline “Trust is Gold”, claiming that it was participating in a campaign kicked off by ruling Communist party and government institutions to safeguard broadcasting and market order on the internet.
CCTV said that to realise this goal it was “exposing false information, negative behaviour driven by unfair competition, and promote the establishment of a healthy, fair online environment.”
But the page featured nothing but CCTV programming and online comment scathingly critical of Baidu. One program aired on Tuesday night featured a professor who accused Baidu of failing to remove allegedly libellous comments against him from a social networking service it hosts.
Another program aired on Wednesday morning had an anchor read out comments by internet users about their negative experiences with Baidu Web search.
Three years ago, Baidu rejigged its keyword auctioning system in response to a wave of criticism about fraudulent ads and a lack of clear separation between sponsored and ‘natural’ search results. That criticism had also been triggered by an attack from CCTV.
But the current campaign goes much farther as it appears to be an all-round attempt to damage Baidu’s brand by ruining its credibility among consumers and advertisers.
“There are certainly some problems with the development of the internet in China, and Baidu has made a number of mistakes with its ad auctioning system, but letting an institution which doesn’t understand the internet and even has a hostile attitude towards it handle the issue is definitely the wrong approach, that will not make the internet any better,” said William Long, a software engineer and prominent internet commentator, on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog service.