Man's death sparks public outcry over lax regulation of Internet firms

A person holding a phone with Boss Zhipin application in Beijing on August 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters 

The mysterious death of a Chinese university graduate who fell victim to a pyramid scheme on an online job-hunting platform named Boss Zhipin has drawn public indignation over the problematic operation of the Internet-driven companies, as the recent years have seen several tragedies whose occurrences were largely due to the nonfeasance of such companies and the lack of regulatory framework for the fast-growing Internet industry.

Li Wenxing, a 23-year-old man who was born in the eastern province of Shandong and graduate of a university in northeastern China last year, was found dead on July 14 in a small pond along a highway in suburban Tianjin, after he received a job offer from an employer who posted recruitment ads on Boss Zhipin, which allows job seekers to have direct talks with employers online.

The so-called employer, who asked Li to go to Tianjin to work for the first few months, has been identified as a pyramid scheme organization soliciting victims by publishing fake job information on Boss Zhipin under the guise of Beijing Client Server International, which is listed on the stock exchange in Shenzhen. Beijing Client Server International denied that they had ever posted any job opportunities on Boss Zhipin in an official statement.

On August 6, Chinese media reports said that five people suspected of involvement in Li's death had been apprehended, citing local police. The cause of the death is still under investigation, the media reports said.

Fatal drawbacks

Li's death has made Boss Zhipin a target of public criticism, which is under fire for neglecting its duty to scrutinize the credentials of companies providing job opportunities on its platform.

"I was shocked that even pyramid schemes can be listed on the job-seeking platforms now. Could we say that the staff of Boss Zhipin did nothing to prevent fake job information from appearing on their platform?" a user of Sina Weibo wrote.

In an article published on last week, a Chinese business information platform, Zhu Lian, a self-proclaimed former public relations manager for Boss Zhipin's East China market, brought to light the defects of the vetting process of the online recruitment platform.

Zhu revealed in the article that the verifiers almost depended on the information they found through the Internet to validate the credibility of the job opportunity providers registering on the Boss Zhipin platform, with their focus being placed on whether the registered employers would bring enough advertising revenue to the platform.

The whistleblower said in the article that Boss Zhipin deliberately designed a gadget on its app to create a delusion that the employers and job applicants seem to be greatly attached to each other.

"The Internet-based job-seeking platforms including Boss Zhipin are supposed to guard the fresh graduates (who are believed to have little professional and social experience), but they lead these young people to the evils and frauds with intended or unintended negligence in verification of fraudulent job information," Zhu said in the article.

In a statement, Zhao Peng, chief executive officer of Boss Zhipin, issued an apology and vowed that his company will replace the previous vetting system allowing employers to post job information first unless they were reported to behave unscrupulously with an updated one which will adopt a series of improved verification measures such as identity card authentication and facial recognition.

"It is a very painful lesson," Zhao said. "The management of the company will treat verification of the recruiters' credibility as the lifeline."

Calls for stricter regulations

The misfortune of Li evokes the grievous memory of the tragedy of Wei Zexi in 2016, a 21-year-old college student who passed away after finding inefficient cancer treatment through Baidu, the biggest search engine in China.

Wei's death badly damaged the image of Baidu as it was strongly criticized for advertising hospitals and medical information without responsibly scrutinizing their credentials. It also sparked public criticism that national industrial regulations always lagged behind the rapid development of the Internet-driven industry.

After the Wei event, China's Industrial and Commercial Bureau issued new rules targeting online ads, stipulating that paid ads which are labeled as "promotion" or "commercial promotion" on Baidu must be identified as "ads".

Back in 2015, the downfall of Ezubo, a Chinese online lending platform which illegally collected 50 billion yuan in funds in less than two years from about 900,000 investors, forced the government to implement stricter rules to tighten management of the online lending sector, categorizing peer-to-peer lending platforms as intermediary agencies that could only provide services including information collection and exchange, credit assessment and matching lenders and borrowers. The government also launched a sweeping campaign to root out problematic and disqualified online lenders. It is ironic that Ezubo was once backed by China Central Television, the largest state-owned broadcaster which aired the online lender's commercial ad during the prime time.

On June 1, 2017, China debuted its first comprehensive cyber security law, which requires that online business operators must collect users' factual information.

It is foreseeable that Chinese regulators might soon work out more specific rules for the chaotic online recruitment sector just like what they did in response to the events of Wei and Ezubo despite the fact that the country's cyberspace administration has made an effort last February in a move aimed at cracking down on online job-seeking platforms which were unable to provide credible information and prevent pyramid schemes.

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