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The internet is helping play matchmaker for millions of amorous young Chinese.
However, nobody is likely to get rich off the trend. Consumers are still often reluctant to pay for online services in China, and that includes dating, says Dave Carini of Norson Telecom.
Unlike the US, where people are willing to pay monthly subscription fees for access to dating sites, Chinese stick mostly to free or low-cost services.
One of the best known is the free QQ instant message service operated by Shenzhen-based Tencent. The service is especially popular among 16 to 24-year olds, who can view the gender, age and location of other people online. If any interesting prospects turn up, they can send a message to see if the other IM users want to chat.
A smaller number of customers willing to pay 10 yuan ($1.20) a month can view in-depth personal profiles on QQ’s online dating site, which started in 2002.
Young people seeking friends or partners have generated millions of page views for QQ’s main portal, according to investor relations manager Catherine Chan, who says the company warns on its website about the risks of online dating.
Ms Chan says QQ has heard stories about young people who met through its services, began dating in person, and eventually got married. The trend isn’t so surprising, considering the demographics of China’s 103m internet users: 59 per cent are unmarried and most are under 30.
Ms Chan attributes the popularity of online dating to the one-child family policy, which limits young peoples’ ability to make friends through brothers or sisters.
Indeed, despite widespread cultural modernisation, dating habits remain conservative. People are not inclined to ask out strangers or distant connections, tending to date those they meet through school and work. The anonymity of an online forum helps to add dating candidates.
Guo Tianjiao, 29, shares a house in the southern city of Shenzhen with a boyfriend she met online four years ago. She placed an ad specifying that she wanted to meet a man who was financially secure and at least 1.76m (5ft 7in) tall.
She received half a dozen e-mail responses and had one uninspired live date before she met the man who became her boyfriend. Guo says she loves him enough to overlook one of her initial prerequisites. “He wasn’t very rich and he still isn’t.”
Not all encounters turn out so well. Liu Jing, 24, corresponded with an online long-distance boyfriend for a year, only to be disappointed when the two actually met. “I thought he would be handsome and tall,” she says. She has since sworn off internet dating.