In early July, Tencent suddenly erased over a dozen LGBTQI university groups from WeChat, sending an ominous signal about the future of queer activism that reverberated across the Chinese internet. The message came amid a wide-reaching government crackdown on technology firms, which caused many of their stocks to go into free fall.
“It’s hard to run a sexual minority organization in China, and it’s also hard to run an internet company now,” said Chuncheng Liu, a PhD student at the University of California San Diego researching public health and the politics of algorithms in China. But one Chinese company is thriving while doing both.
From its Beijing headquarters, BlueCity has quietly built China’s largest internet company geared toward LGBTQI people, an online dating empire that rivals competitors like the U.S.-based Match Group. Its main app is Blued, a location-based dating and livestreaming service for gay and bisexual men, with over 60 million registered users worldwide, bypassing Grindr last year in India, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, and China. After going public on the NASDAQ exchange in 2020, BlueCity expanded by acquiring Lesdo, one of the largest lesbian dating apps in China, and Finka, a social network for younger gay and bisexual men.
While it’s best-known for its dating services, BlueCity has succeeded domestically, in part, by positioning itself as an entertainment platform and sexual health company. Since its founding, BlueCity has operated an HIV-focused nonprofit and slowly embedded itself in the state’s public health initiatives to combat the virus. Now, it’s expanding into health care technology more formally, by launching a digital pharmacy and internet hospital for Chinese men.
“With a long history of serving the LGBTQ community, we have an unparalleled understanding of their needs and concerns,” BlueCity’s founder and CEO Baoli Ma told Rest of World over email, when asked about the new initiatives. “Rather than shifting our focus, I would say I am happy that with technological advancement and more resources, we are able to develop and offer more services.”
Emphasizing its health offerings has made it easier for BlueCity to navigate an often precarious political environment for LGBTQI organizations. “Blued, even today, can still run a business in China because it mainly positions itself as a health promotion platform, rather than a gay platform,” said Lik Sam Chan, a communications professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and the author of The Politics of Dating Apps: Gender, Sexuality, and Emergent Publics in Urban China. “Blued diluted the sexual elements of its business to promote itself as a health promotion platform.”
BlueCity’s Chinese-language website rarely mentions terms like “gay” or “LGBTQI,” instead using coded language like “diversity” and “community” to gesture toward its marginalized user base. “It’s trying to make sure the state will not mistake it as a gay activist organization,” said Chan. “It must, in order to survive.”
While China has expressed support for gay rights at the United Nations, it doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages and regularly censors media featuring queer people. The LGBTQI movement has made progress in recent years, but advancements are often coupled with setbacks, like “the police detaining activists and shutting down events, censors removing online content, and policymakers snubbing calls for equality,” a 2020 report from the human rights organization OutRight Action International found.
“We understand that there are still challenges for the community, like in everywhere else in the world,” said Ma. “I think that’s also the value provided by Blued, to provide better services to foster connections and enhance the well-being of the LGBT community.”
In 2017, the Chinese government shut down another gay dating app, Zank, after accusing it of hosting pornographic content. BlueCity has, so far, avoided a similar fate. “There are still some anxieties, but I think this software provides a channel for people to relax and stay connected to the LGBTQ community,” said one Chinese gay rights activist who asked to remain anonymous to protect their safety.
BlueCity’s latest health offering is an app called He Health. Launched in 2019, it’s designed to help men in China with health issues they may want treated more discreetly, like sexually transmitted infections or erectile dysfunction. “Some [users] have health issues that they can’t really comfortably talk about with doctors,” said Hui Xue, the director of medical affairs for He Health.
He Health is available as a portal on Blued and can also be downloaded as a separate app. The platform initially functioned as a pharmacy — users could submit their prescriptions online and then have medications delivered. In April, BlueCity obtained a state internet hospital license, allowing it to begin offering telehealth consultations. “We employ our own doctors, but we also cooperate with doctors from famous hospitals, who can provide health consultation services for users on our platform in their free time,” Xue explained.
Users can schedule appointments and checkups, consult with physicians, receive electronic prescriptions, and have the medicines delivered, all through He Health’s platform. In essence, BlueCity took its core app, Blued, and built out a companion digital pharmacy and internet hospital to address the sexual health of those same users.
Earlier this year, He Health began delivering two HIV prevention drugs: PEP, a pill taken immediately after possible exposure to HIV, and PrEP, a daily oral pill that prevents transmission of the virus. He Health currently delivers PEP to patients’ homes within two hours in 55 major cities, with plans to expand to 100 by the end of this year. (PrEP and general prescription medications are delivered in one to two business days.)
He Health is capitalizing on newly loosened regulations in China’s online health care industry. Over the last two years, the government ended a ban on direct online sales of prescription drugs and began allowing telemedicine providers to issue electronic prescriptions. That led to a surge of investment in digital health care companies, according to a report published in March by Deloitte China. In the second quarter of 2021, BlueCity said it generated $2.4 million in sales from its health initiatives.
BlueCity’s burgeoning health care offerings are just the latest part of a long-standing strategy that’s helped the company avoid risks to its business from Chinese authorities. For over a decade, BlueCity has partnered with government health institutions, slowly making its platform an arm of the state’s campaign to fight HIV/AIDS. In the early 2010s, China was struggling to combat a widespread epidemic, with over 500,000 people already living with the virus.
“BlueCity wanted to have good relations with the government, and public health officials needed Blued as a platform to do research and prevention,” said Liu, who has paid to conduct surveys about HIV through Blued’s platform. “So this became a kind of win-win situation.”
BlueCity began partnering with city-level health officials in its earliest days, when it was still just a message board and website for gay men. At the time, Ma, who went by the pseudonym Geng Le, was closeted, married, and working as a police officer in Qinhuangdao, a small port city along the coast of Hebei province. He named the forum Danlan, meaning “light blue,” an homage to the color of the Bohai Sea.
A few years after founding the site in 2000, Ma began building bridges between Danlan and government institutions in Beijing. He had friends in the municipal health office and suggested they could use his site to help promote HIV testing with higher-risk demographics that were difficult to reach. That nonprofit work was eventually spun out into a full-fledged charity, Danlan Public Interest.
After he was outed as the operator of Danlan.org in 2012, Ma was forced to resign from the police force and began seeking out investors to launch Blued. The original app was a basic Chinese-language copycat of Jack’d, one of the earliest gay dating apps in the U.S.
Using the reach of Blued’s growing user base, the company began partnering with nationwide public health institutions. “There was a point when the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention actually had a hard time targeting the gay community,” said Chan, whose research team has conducted interviews with a number of BlueCity executives, including Ma. Public health bureaucrats were often ignorant about the needs of gay men, many of whom feared establishing government records of their sexual histories and HIV status.
By 2019, BlueCity said it had facilitated over 50,000 HIV tests in 30 Chinese cities, which people can sign up for via Blued’s free online appointment portal. Pop-up testing reminders, public health announcements, and education materials appear so frequently on the dating app that some users have even complained, Chan said.
The emphasis reflects BlueCity’s close monitoring of the government’s public health priorities. Top management at the company has reportedly organized reading groups where employees pore over the speeches of President Xi Jinping, analyzing his rhetoric and predicting what it may mean for BlueCity’s business. When the state shifts its position, the company sometimes follows.
Last March, BlueCity announced it was discontinuing BluedBaby, a service that connected gay couples in China with surrogacy services in the the United States and Canada. Ma said the decision was a reflection of the company’s tightened focus on health services, but BluedBaby’s website had disappeared months earlier, around the same time that a public scandal occurred involving a Chinese actress who had hired surrogates in the U.S. “Surrogacy has become so sensitive in the past two years,” said Liu. “Because of its risky status as an LGBTQ company, I think they abandoned that project.”
The Chinese government has recently begun emphasizing data security and passed a sweeping internet privacy law that potentially opens BlueCity to new regulatory hazards. The company collects highly sensitive information, which could make both the government and users wary. “Some people are not really out to the public, and they don’t want their sexual orientation to be revealed,” said another gay rights activist in China, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their safety. In early August, Blued announced it will block screenshots and recordings on the app to protect the identity of its users.
BlueCity must also contend with the fact that state health initiatives have started to close the gaps that Danlan Public Interest once filled, raising questions about how much demand there will be for He Health’s services. “In affluent cities in China, the local CDC has begun to give money to LGBTQ organizations to promote PrEP,” said the first activist. “So people don’t necessarily have to rely on BlueCity to access the medication.”
Ma is still optimistic about the company’s future in health care, which he argues provides a new avenue for supporting the LGBTQI community. “Health-related service offerings will definitely be one of our growth engines in the few years to come,” he said.