Twenty years ago, Ma Baoli was a depressed man hunched over computers in internet cafes looking for love online. He never thought he would one day build an empire connecting millions of gay men across the globe.
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The world’s most popular gay dating app is made in China
Today, Ma owns the world’s most popular online gay dating service. It’s not Grindr, but Blued: a Beijing-based app valued at more than $600 million, with 40 million registered users.
Grindr, which has nearly 30 million registered users with up to six million monthly active users compared to Blued’s estimated 3.5 million, was bought out recently with a total value of $245 million.
Homosexuality may be frowned on in China, where being gay still carries a significant stigma, but the country has a budding pink economy fuelled by the nation’s millions of gay and lesbian people.
“China’s 70 million gays and lesbians want very simple things: to live equally and freely with someone they love,” Ma says. “I went through a lot, but I’ve also seen lots of progress in the past 15 years.”
Growing Blued from a humble personal blog in 2000, Ma Baoli – under the pseudonym Geng Le, has fought through rigorous internet crackdowns to build his company into the government’s extended arm for HIV/AIDS control. And now he’s set his sights on the rest of the world.
In February, the app scored $100 million in a Series D funding round to further expand its operations. After taking Southeast Asia by storm with services in 13 languages, it will soon enter the market in Mexico and Brazil.
A humble start
When Ma Baoli got his first crush on a man while training at the police academy in 1995, he thought he was sick.
Chinese criminology textbooks taught young police cadets like him that homosexuality was a perversion.
He found little information online about homosexuality, other than ads for therapies claiming to treat this “mental illness.”
It was not until Ma read Lan Yu, a novel published anonymously online about a tragic love story between two men, that he finally accepted himself as a gay man.
“I cried out loud in the internet cafe when I finished reading Lan Yu,” Ma says. “I did not know love between two men could be so beautiful.”
The online gay dating scene in China was booming in early 2000s. Unlike in the US and Europe, where there is an abundance of offline LGBT social events, Chinese gay men had to rely on the internet to meet people.
Living in the small coastal city of Qinghuangdao, Ma led a double life. In public, he was an upstanding married cop on the fast-track to a deputy director post. In private, he ran one of China’s most popular gay blogs.
Ma’s blog, although fairly rudimentary, got the attention of large number of visitors who, just like him, were living in the shadows. He gathered a few friends in a rented apartment and slowly built the blog into a website catering to China’s gay community.
But it didn’t take long before the authorities started cracking down. In 2004, the Internet Society of China, an industry regulatory body, listed homosexuality as sexual perversion in a notice for websites to “self-regulate.” Although the society was not an official government organ, the notice became an excuse for the authorities to root out gay content online.
“Every time we got shut down, we moved our server to a new city,” Ma tells Inkstone. “We kept our website clear of anything illegal, but they told us we were against ‘social morals’ because we were a gay website.”
Ma moved his team to Beijing for a more accepting environment in 2009, while he took a long career break. After some initial setbacks, his business soared following a documentary that made him famous in 2012 as the policeman who ran a gay website, but it also cost him his stable job and his marriage.
All the bridges back to the high-status, small-town policeman life were burned.
Thriving in a narrow space
The Chinese government is vague when it comes to defining the rights of the LGBT community. They live peacefully without fear of violence or persecution, but the authorities discourage any public discussion or promotion of LGBT issues.
Blued had to learn how to grow under the government’s watch. The relationship is reciprocal to some extent. The authorities need the influence of Blued to reach out to a huge group of people who they consider “highly susceptible” to HIV/AIDS, and Blued wants to educate the government and slowly change its attitude from within.
“We regularly got shut down in 2006,” Ma says. “But now we are huge. Everyone in the government wants to hear our opinions and ask us how they can serve this group of people.”
Blued runs a charity branch that provides free HIV testing services in dozens of Chinese cities. It allocates at least 10% of its profit to charity every year, hoping it can not only be successful commercially, but also send a positive message to the authorities.
In June last year, an internet crackdown banning gay along with sexual abuse and violence content online caused a huge backlash. Ma described a meeting with an official who was involved in rolling out the regulation.
“I told him: ‘if you squeeze out the remaining space for people to survive, of course they will protest. You’ve sealed the gate that people took years to open’,” Ma says.
Compared with many LGBT activists who have spoken up against the government’s rigid regulations, Ma Baoli is much more pragmatic. He was once young and depressed, but he is now a businessman trying to the bridge the gap between his users and the government.
“Sometimes government policies get over-interpreted,” he says. “When they reach individual companies, they try extra hard to meet the requirements, which could twist the meaning of these policies.”
China’s pink economy
The Chinese government may be shutting out the LGBT community, but Chinese capital is already eyeing the pink economy.
According to the not-for-profit LGBT Foundation, global LGBT buying power could be as high as $4.6 trillion.
Grindr, Blued’s top competitor, is now owned by Chinese video game maker Beijing Kunlun Tech, which paid $245 million for the app. In 2016, Blued bought into Hornet, another US-based competitor, to help its global expansion.
Ma predicts its user base could reach 10 million monthly active users globally by the end of the year, up from 3.5 million today. He plans to take Blued public in the US within three years.
“US and European players in the market can’t compete with us,” Ma says. “Their business model is too homogeneous with profits generated largely by paid accounts and advertising.”
Blued says it makes money not only by nurturing a location-based social networking community. It also provides platforms for live-streaming, e-commerce and health services like connecting Chinese gay men who want to build families with surrogacy agencies in the US. Ma recently had his son Xiao Shu through one such agency.
In China, the LGBT community is still fighting for survival, but the pink dollar may give this Chinese company what it needs to conquer the world.