Blued – China's largest dating application for gay men – has long been considered a safe space where users can socialize and express themselves, protected from the stigma they face in Chinese society.
The application, funded by an investor-backed former police officer, including Hong Kong-based CDH Investments, has 40 million registered users, including 12 million outside China. It evolved from a simple platform that allows users to combine and converse with each other to offer functions such as e-commerce and livestreaming, now considered prerequisites for success among Chinese applications.
But after years of rapid expansion since its launch in 2012, Blued faces a familiar hurdle for many of China's Internet-based companies: critics who say it prioritized growth in user safety. According to Zhang Beichuan, a prominent Chinese LGBT researcher, Blued ignored key security measures and allowed underage users to create accounts on their platform, exposing them to explicit content and sexual exploitation by adults.
Blued announced Sunday that it would freeze new user registrations for a week to conduct an internal investigation following the publication of Zhang's findings on the Caixin news channel on Saturday. The company will find underage users disguised as adults and clean up texts and photos related to minors, according to the statement.
A safe space
Blued was started in 2000 by Ma Baoli, then a policeman in the northern city of Qinhuangdao under the pseudonym of Geng Le. He called it pale blue memories and recorded mostly personal stories and his own feelings in his early posts.
Ma Baoli, founder of Blued's parent company, poses for a photo during a Pride march in New York on June 25, 2017. Ed Lefkowicz / VW Pics / IC
The site was shut down many times, and Ma had to switch servers several times, he told Caixin. After media reports, he faced enormous pressure from his workplace and even considered suicide, he said.
Ma said he wanted his site to offer hope to people from sexual minorities in China, where homosexuality was criminalized as a form of "vandalism" until 1997 and considered a mental disorder until 2001. Recently, in 2016, China's media regulator banned portraits of homosexuality on TV.
"We still hope that the LGBT community can have their own space, make friends, find content they like and express their feelings," Ma said. "They may be facing more serious discrimination and feeling more loneliness than the ruling population" .
Gradually, and with the help of a small team, Ma expanded his site to an online community. In November 2012, they released the Blued application, modeled closely at the time in the US dating applications Jack & Grindr. Users have been able to connect with others close to them, view their profiles and start chatting.
Chen Liang – one of the first to adopt Blued, which is identified here under a pseudonym – said that before applications like Blued appeared, LGBT people in China had a hard time finding dates and friendship, especially in smaller cities.
As a gay man living in Shanghai, Chen said he thought the young people in his area were more tolerant, but feared that many LGBT people in more conservative second- and third-tier cities and smaller cities "would become deeply heaped and never leave." and even suffer psychological problems such as extremely low self-esteem "without platforms like Blued.
Ma Baoli oversees the team at the company's Beijing office on January 7, 2015. Guo Yeqi / Reuters / VCG
Blued "created a non-discriminatory space in a discriminatory society, which was great," Zhang told Caixin. But his research, conducted over 10 months last year, found that Blued's lack of adequate safeguards was putting at risk the younger members of his community.
Even though the application does not allow children under the age of 18 to enroll, the lack of age verification has made many young teens able to create accounts. Before Sunday's switch off, Caixin found that several users who registered at age 18 or 19 wrote on their profile pages that they were actually younger.
Zhang interviewed boys who said they had created their reports with Blues when they were only 14 years old. Several high school seniors with whom he spoke said they had met older men through the application, and some said they had been pressured into having sex.
Zhang said several underage respondents told her they had contracted HIV from people they met through Blued. Zhang did not publish his research, but shared his findings with Caixin.
Hu Wei, a leader of a major LGBT organization who is not identified by his real name at his request, said that in the last two years, almost all new cases of HIV infection found by his organization have involved people who have met. sexual partners through Blued, including a 16-year-old boy. Hu also told Caixin that he found in his work children up to 12 years old who said they were using Blued.
About 90 percent of the Chinese population of HIV-positive people contracted the virus through sexual contact, with a clear majority of these cases – 70 percent – involving heterosexual activity, the country's National Health Commission said. But Zhang said men who contracted HIV through sex with other men were in a particularly vulnerable position in China as official organizations in many parts of the country refuse to discuss homosexuality and avoid the necessary community care.
Blued tried to fill that gap through Danlan, a non-profit organization affiliated with Blued that offers sex education and free HIV testing, as well as through educational videos broadcasted by the group. But some Blued users and advocates of HIV awareness told Caixin that the reality was different.
Li Heng, a 25-year-old public health volunteer who is not identified here by his real name at his request, said his organization was often prevented from adding awareness posts about Blued's "flash" function, which erases the images. after viewing, even if the explicit images technically banned by the application are not blocked.
A volunteer demonstrates an HIV test kit at the nonprofit office of Blued affiliated Danlan in Beijing on November 24, 2016. Liu Chang / VCG
What went wrong?
Blue executives contacted by Caixin did not deny that there were minors using the application, but Ma said the intention was never to reach the minors. Mi Guodong, Blued medical director, said that no one under 18 was allowed on the platform – but that it was difficult to restrict access in practice. "We can not judge and we do not have the right to ask for your identity documents," Mi said.
Blued's live streaming feature, launched in February 2016 when Chinese Internet companies collectively got live streaming, also increased the likelihood of underage users finding inappropriate content. "When Blued released livestreaming for the first time, the entire live streaming environment on the Internet was not very strict, and there was relatively more inappropriate content, such as nudity," Chen, the former Blued user, told Caixin.
Amid a mass crackdown on Chinese livestreaming services over the last two years, Blued has changed its policies to require real-name authentication for all streamers. "We all have very good cooperation with the relevant [government] departments, and sometimes our standards are more stringent than those of these regulatory bodies, "said Ma. He gave toplessness, defined livestreams in restrooms and even foot shots wearing white socks – considered highly suggestive sexual content in China's gay online community – as examples of content banned from Blued livestreams.
But those measures did not prevent minors from accessing live broadcasts, Jiang Xiong, a survivor of Blued, told Caixin. Jiang said that during the broadcast of a live video recently, he was in contact with a person who claimed to be 18 but was later revealed to be only 12. After the underage user was informed: "They closed my live broadcast room, but not the child's account, "Jiang said.
Hu, the leader of the LGBT organization, told Caixin he felt there was more and more Blued content showing the use of drugs, pornography and casual sex.
Ma told Caixin that if the government asked Blued to require real-name authentication for all users in the future, the company would adjust its policy to do so. But, he said, the company had no plans to implement this requirement on its own. Ma also said that the company would not move in the direction of foreign applications such as Grindr, which in 2016 began to allow users to identify their own HIV status and whether they were in pre-exposure prophylaxis, also known as PrEP.
"The broader social environment is very discriminatory against people living with HIV, and the integrity of Chinese users or the privacy protection of other parties has not yet reached such a rigorous and well-developed situation. [as overseas]- Ma said. Grindr was unveiled in April to sell information from users, including HIV status, to outsourced companies.
A man opens the Blued mobile application in Shanghai, January 7, 2019. Shi Yangkun / Sixth Tone
"You must also protect our community"
The rapid expansion of China's Internet-based services, in addition to regulators' ability to maintain control, has forced other companies to face major security breaches on their platforms.
In April, the Kuaishou video application was criticized by Chinese authorities for allowing girls supposedly only 13 years old to post videos on teenage pregnancy and use their algorithm to promote those videos to viewers. Kuaishou responded by closing the accounts of users posting about teenage pregnancy and issued several public apologies.
Popular videogames such as Tencent's "Honor of the Kings" have also been the focus of public concern for children's health. In September, a government policy to prevent game addiction and protect children's views forced game companies to check the age of users and limit the use of applications by younger users.
In a particularly tragic case, the alleged rape and murder of a woman in August by her driver Didi provoked public anger and forced the nation's biggest startup to deal with systemic safety breaches.
Before a week's freeze on new users on Sunday, Ma told Caixin that Blued had plans to open the capital. "When other companies go public, this represents their success – that the company was recognized by the capital market," Ma said. "But for us, as well as being recognized by capital, we also expect traditional society to see the [gay men], its existence, its importance, which is a kind of social education. "
As a rare place in China for gay men to socialize and express themselves, Blued faces more expectations than average startups.
"You can make money with our gay community, but you must also protect our community," said Hu, the leader of the LGBT organization. "Providing this platform should not be harmful to us."
This is an original article written by Ma Danmeng, Mao Kexin and Teng Jing Xuan of Caixin Global and has been republished with permission. The article can be found on the Caixin website On here.
(Header Image: Shi Yangkun and Ding Yining / Sixth Tone)