China on Thursday banned the outsourcing of medical procedures by its hospitals following the death of a young man from cancer after he found a discredited treatment using the homegrown search engine Baidu, as the country's powerful propaganda ministry banned any further media reports on the scandal.
The National Health and Family Planning Commission made the announcement amid a public outcry over the April 12 death of Wei Zexi, 21, who was given treatment for synovial carcinoma—malignant tumors that grow in soft tissues, usually around joints—at an outsourced oncology department in the Beijing No. 2 People's Armed Police Hospital.
Shortly before he died, Wei complained online that he had trusted the hospital because it was at the top of Baidu’s search results and not clearly marked as "sponsored," sparking concerns that the company's current pay-for-listing policy is ethically dubious.
However, sources told RFA that there is more to the story than meets the eye, after state media were banned from carrying out any follow-up reporting.
A source close to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) propaganda process told RFA that Wei's death and complaint against Baidu had implicated "dozens" of high-ranking military officials with interests in military-run hospitals.
He said the Cyberspace Administration of China had issued a propaganda directive forbidding any online reporting of the story early this week.
Silencing state media
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has banned its state media from reporting on the activities of a secretive chain of medical businesses and hospitals run out of Putian in the southeastern province of Fujian after a young man died after receiving treatment from one of its outlets.
"All local websites [overseen by provincial internet information offices] are asked to immediately and thoroughly find, delete, intercept and attack information involving the inner workings of the Putian system, and to find and delete information involving armed police and army hospitals that incite or call to action," the central propaganda department said in a directive leaked on Twitter and translated by the U.S.-based China Digital Times website.
"Also, please complete collection of specimens of harmful [material]," the directive said, in a reference to stories dealing with such forbidden topics.
According to RFA's source, the PLA's business dealings are generally a forbidden topic for news media, and the authorities are keen to avoid triggering an outpouring of government anger over the scandal.
"Nobody can oversee the military in China; it's a no-go area," the source said. "Wei Zexi died on April 12, and yet this story has only just broken in May."
"There are definitely some very high-ranking people involved in this, such as former State Counselor Chen Zhili, who is part of the Putian clan; she has taken part in conferences run by the Putian network," the source said.
He said the military is already under fire from President Xi's anti-corruption campaign, begun after he took power in November 2012.
"Right now, China is in the process of reforming the military and getting rid of military hospitals is part of that, although they have no way to achieve that," he said. "That's why we're hearing about this now; I think this is all coming from higher up."
A highly complex story
Chen Bingzhong, former director of the China Health Education Research Institute under the health ministry, said the No. 2 People's Armed Police Hospital has high-ranking protectors in the military hierarchy, making the story a highly complex one to unravel.
"This isn't about military secrets; it's a purely medical matter, so there shouldn't be anything to keep secret," Chen said.
"It is another sign of corruption, but they should let it all come out, rather than trying to cover it up," he said. "They are destroying lives."
Some have directed their anger over Wei's death at top Chinese search engine Baidu, blaming skewed search results for promoting a treatment that had been discredited by research that wasn't shown in the results.
Many were now asking the question "what if Wei Zexi had used Google instead of Baidu?" according to veteran freelance journalist Zhu Xinxin.
"Everyone remembers the days back when Google still operated in China, and there was no filtering or blocking of search terms," Zhu said. "We miss that level of openness on the Internet."
Baidu, which has enjoyed a near monopoly in the China since Google's exit from the country in 2011, inserts the word "promoted" in small print to alert users to paid search results.
The Cyberspace Administration of China said on Monday it would probe Baidu over Wei's allegations. Baidu has said it is cooperating fully with the investigations.
It has also pledged to help Wei's family seek compensation if the hospital is proved to be at fault.
Wei said his family had spent more than 200,000 yuan (U.S. $30,750) on immunotherapy treatment provided by the Putian-run oncology department.
Reported by Chan Siu-po, Dai Weisen, Pan Jiaqing and Wong Siu-san for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.