Tencent-backed China health information unicorn censored online

A CHINESE health information provider valued at more than US$1 billion by investors including IDG Capital and Tencent Holdings has had at least 5 of its social media accounts frozen by what appears to be government censors.

Hangzhou Lianke Meixun Biomedical Technology, which is well-known in China for its DXY websites that fact check health claims and explain science to the public, had a handful of its Weibo social media accounts labelled as "violating regulations" and suspended. No further details were given.

The move comes 3 months after DXY published an article saying that Lianhua Qingwen, a type of traditional Chinese medicine being promoted by the government for treating Covid-19, hasn't been shown to prevent infections. It also questioned why the medicine was given priority for distribution over other essentials including food during the recent 2-month lockdown in Shanghai. The post, which has since been removed, attracted considerable criticism from people online, some of whom saw it as an attack on traditional Chinese medicine.

The Cyberspace Administration of China, the government body that polices the country's heavily-regulated Internet, didn't immediately respond to questions faxed by Bloomberg News. Representatives for Tencent, WeChat's parent company, and Weibo also didn't reply to requests for comment. DXY didn't respond to requests for further comment.

The startup hit unicorn status in 2020 when its valuation exceeded US$1 billion after a series E funding round of US$500 million, led by IDG Capital, followed by Tencent and GL Ventures.

The censored accounts have a combined 8.69 million followers and now carry notices that say they are prohibited from posting due to "violating relevant laws and regulations." DXY's accounts on other Chinese platforms such as WeChat haven't been updated since Monday (Aug 8).

The article questioning Lianhua Qingwen came at a time when Beijing was pushing the use of traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, for the treatment of Covid both at home and abroad. China has sent TCM specialists to Cambodia and is supporting clinical trials for TCM in Pakistan, both countries that rely heavily on Chinese aid. It was also distributed widely in Hong Kong free of charge to residents during the city's Omicron outbreak in the spring.

Lianhua Qingwen products generated sales of about 4.1 billion yuan (S$835.6 million) in 2021 for its maker, Yiling Pharmaceutical, according to the company's annual report. That's down from US$676 million in 2020, when sales soared 150 per cent year-over-year.

China has a track record of censoring criticism of TCM. In April, Wang Sicong, the son of real estate tycoon Wan Jianlin, had his Weibo account banned and then completely removed after he shared a video questioning Yiling Pharmaceutical's claims about Lianhua Qingwen.

The post sent the drugmaker's shares plunging, wiping out US$2 billion in net worth from the company founder Wu Yiling and his family, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Wang, however, also criticised the lockdown in Shanghai, which could have drawn official ire. Chinese President Xi Jinping is resolutely committed to a Covid Zero policy that still seeks to wipe out the virus with lockdowns and other restrictions, and authorities have been quick to quell dissent against it. BLOOMBERG


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