Dating apps are thriving in China, not just for romance


Qu Tongzhou, a photo assistant who used two popular Chinese dating apps to make friends while traveling in western China, in Shanghai on September 18, 2022. Beyond romance, many Chinese users find the apps help combat loneliness as COVID shutdowns have taken their toll on social connections. “If I wasn’t using these apps, I wouldn’t have met many people,” Qu said. (Qilai Shen/The New York Times)

Ohen Qu Tongzhou, an assistant photographer in Shanghai, embarked on a long-awaited trip to western China in June, she found the cities she visited unwelcoming. As a result of the country’s “zero-COVID” policies, locals were wary of travelers and some hotels turned Qu away, fearing she could introduce the virus.

So Qu turned to Tantan and Jimu, two popular Chinese dating apps with Tinder-like features. She was aware of the risks of meeting strangers, but the apps generated a source of new friends, including a biotech entrepreneur from Lanzhou City, a Tibetan doctor from Xining City, and an official from Karamay, a northwestern town. from Xinjiang. At each stop, his matches provided him with accommodation and took him to local bars and other venues.

“If I didn’t use these apps, I wouldn’t have met many people,” said Qu, 28. “No one would have taken me to town.”

Over the past two years, China has cracked down on much of its domestic tech industry, banning for-profit online tutoring agencies, restricting video games and handing out multibillion-dollar antitrust fines to the biggest platforms. online shopping. Some of China’s once-vaunted tech titans, like Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce firm Alibaba, have retreated from public view.

But one sector of China’s tech industry has flourished: dating apps.

The number of dating apps in China with more than 1,000 downloads soared to 275 this year from 81 in 2017, according to data.ai, an analytics firm. App downloads increased, as did in-app purchases.

Investors also poured more than $5.3 billion into dating and social media companies nationwide last year, up from $300 million in 2019, according to PitchBook. And China’s biggest tech companies, such as ByteDance and Tencent, are testing, acquiring and investing in new apps that promise to bring strangers together.

These apps are flourishing — and Beijing seems to be leaving them alone — for more than just romantic reasons. They promise to nudge people into marriage at a time when China’s marriage and fertility rates are at record highs, but the apps are also helping users combat loneliness as COVID lockdowns have taken their toll on social ties.

For many people, apps have become virtual sanctuaries — a 21st-century version of what city planners called the “third place,” a community between work and home — to explore hobbies, discuss popular topics and meet new friends.

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“It’s really hard to meet people offline,” said Raphael Zhao, 25, a recent graduate from Peking University. Zhao downloaded Tantan in April after being locked down on his campus for zero COVID measures. “Because the pool is so big on these platforms, it gives you hope to meet someone you live with.”

Chinese authorities have taken action against dating apps in the past. In 2019, Tantan and another dating app called Momo suspended some in-app features after regulators criticized them for neglecting the delivery of pornographic content on their platforms.

But unlike online tutoring and cryptocurrency trading, the areas that Chinese regulators unambiguously canceled, dating and other social dating-centric services remained relatively unscathed, as the apps explicitly defined their purposes as helping Chinese society to prosper.

Zhang Lu, the founder of Soul, a dating app backed by Tencent, said “loneliness is the core problem we want to solve.” Blued, the most popular gay dating app, markets itself as a public health and HIV awareness app. Its site highlights its work on HIV prevention, its collaborations with local governments and its founder’s meetings with senior officials such as Premier Li Keqiang. (Blued’s founder stepped down last month, alluding to the challenges of running an LGBTQ app in China, but app downloads have remained steady.)

“Rather than simply suppressing, dating apps are seen as technologies that can be effectively co-opted by the state,” said Yun Zhou, assistant professor of sociology and China studies at the University of Michigan.

When internet dating came to China in the early 2000s, the power to form relationships – once disproportionately in the hands of village matchmakers, parents and factory bosses – increasingly fell to the individual. Many were eager for a change, turning to the features of WeChat, the popular messaging app, which allowed chatting with strangers.

The trend accelerated in the 2010s with the arrival of dating apps like Momo and Tantan, which mimicked Tinder. Along with Soul, they have become China’s three most popular dating apps, amassing a total of over 150 million monthly active users.

Soul and Momo declined to comment. Tantan, which is owned by Momo, did not respond to a request for comment.

The apps themselves have changed. Both Tantan and Momo had long matched users based on their physical appearance, leading to accusations that the platforms were cultivating a connection culture. More recently, these apps have started using people’s interests, hobbies, and personalities as the basis for new social encounters.

Douyin, which is owned by ByteDance and is China’s version of TikTok, and Little Red Book, an app with similarities to Instagram, have created “social discovery” features that use their knowledge of people’s preferences to match them. Soul has become particularly popular in recent years for its avatar profiles and its practice of matching users based on personality tests. Last year, the app overtook Tantan and Momo as the most downloaded dating app on the Chinese iOS store.

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Many users of these dating apps seem less interested in romance than in meeting friends. In an October survey by a Chinese research institute, 89% of respondents said they had ever used a dating app, with the majority saying they were primarily interested in expanding their social circles, not finding a partner.

Vladimir Peters, a Shanghai-based developer working on his own dating app, said many young Chinese people now want apps to offer a more holistic experience that combines entertainment and hobby exploration – not just a match. love.

“Chinese young people love gadgets such as icebreakers and other fun things that are the starting points for communication,” he said.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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