By Louise Watt and Aritz Parra
BEIJING (AP) — By day, Ma Baoli was a high-ranking officer in a seaside city police force. By night, he ran a website for gay people to share experiences and on which he spoke under a pseudonym about the pressure he faced as a homosexual.
After several years, the police force found out and told him he could not run a private website that was earning money from advertisements while serving as a police officer.
Ma chose his website, a move that later proved fruitful. His Danlan.org has spawned a Chinese-language dating app for men called Blued that has garnered 15 million users, 3 million of them outside China, over two years.
And last month, his company, Blue City, received $30 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture capital company DCM Ventures. Ma hopes to use the money to expand abroad and possibly prepare for an IPO. He is also considering launching a dating app for lesbians.
In a country where the government considers any activism dangerous and where homosexuality has traditionally been taboo, Ma has managed to build his business partly by reaching out to government agencies and showing them he can provide a public service in spreading safe-sex messages.
The app allows users to look for people by location or the last time they logged on. It also enables group settings so people can organize activities such as hiking or assembling a basketball team, as well as providing information from health authorities on locations for HIV testing and treatment.
Andrea Pastorelli, a policy specialist at the United Nations Development Programme, said the Chinese CDC had recognized the app’s usefulness in reaching people they were unable to.
“They are having a real issue reaching out to the most marginalized people and in China that’s where the epidemic is,” he said.
“The fact that they have been able to attract this much money shows that there is interest in the so-called pink market,” Pastorelli added. “Private companies are realizing that gay people exist and gay people represent a huge market.”
An investment manager at the Beijing office of DCM Ventures who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak to the media confirmed that the company had invested $30 million in Blue City, saying its future outlook was promising.
“Five percent of the total population are LGBT people,” she said. “Social attitudes toward gay people will become more and more tolerant in the future.”
For Ma, 37, who goes by the online pseudonym Geng Le, the investment signals a shift in attitudes already among Chinese toward homosexuals. (end)