Zhang Yi (L) carries Hai Bei as the same-sex couple pose for their wedding photographs at Qianmen street on Valentine's Day in Beijing February 14, 2009. For some in Beijing's gay and lesbian community, Valentine's Day is not just a day to celebrate loving relationships but also an ideal time to campaign for same-sex marriages and the acceptance of homosexuality in China. REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA) - RTXBLZN
Chinese men are signing up en masse for gay dating apps © Reuters

China’s vibrant gay dating scene is attracting millions of dollars in investment, including from at least one state-controlled media group, even as embarrassed official censors curb the portrayal of openly homosexual characters on television and in other media.

With Chinese men signing up en masse for gay dating apps, the biggest such service — Blued (pronounced “Blue-duh”) — announced this week it was receiving “tens of millions” of renminbi (several million US dollars) in investment from The Beijing News, a state-run newspaper.

Blued had already received $30m in its second big round of fundraising in 2014, giving it a total valuation of $300m.

Its users have almost doubled in number since then. As of last year, 27m men had signed up to find male partners, 7m of whom log in every day — giving it more daily logins than its famous western counterpart Grindr, which is often blocked by the Chinese internet censorship system known as the Great Firewall.

At least 10m men are registered on Zank, Blued’s main competitor. Lesdo, a Chinese app for women seeking other women, has 1.5m users.

Last year, the gaming company Beijing Kunlun Tech paid $93m for a majority stake in Grindr, saying it was attracted by the app’s growth potential and overseas audience for gaming advertisements. Kunlun also invested “millions” of renminbi in Zank later in 2016.

While apps serving LGBT people are attracting the investment of entertainment firms, they are still often censored on China’s entertainment platforms.

Last year, “Heroin”, a popular online drama series about teenage gay romance, was cut short by China’s big video-streaming websites after running for a month. The final episodes are available only on YouTube, which is blocked in China. In 2015, an episode of the talk show Qipa Shuo (“Tall Tales”), in which the host asked for more sympathy towards gay people, was also pulled.

SAPPRFT, the government body that regulates the media, released a series of measures last year tightening the regulation of online video material. In December the body announced that online producers would have to submit their videos to a review process before they could be broadcast.

“A film can’t be broadcast in China if it features an LGBT romance as the main storyline, or has a character advocating for LGBT rights,” said Xiaogang Wei, executive director of Beijing Gender, an NGO.

However, Mr Wei noted that coverage of LGBT issues in the media had improved over recent years, especially on self-published online platforms that often escape censorship because they are smaller.

“We face a tough road ahead to securing the rights of many minorities, not just us,” Mr Wei said.

Dating apps are an important way of safely meeting other gay people without arousing stigma, said Steven Zhang, a volunteer at the Beijing LGBT Center, another NGO.

“It’s still difficult for people to come out who work in the government, army and state-owned companies. I think people in foreign companies and internet companies are more open about this topic,” Mr Zhang said.

“I hope that Blued will continue to push forward social progress after this fundraising round,” chief executive Ma Baoli — better known by his celebrity name Geng Le — said in a press release.

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang

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