When Onism Chen, a Chinese salesman from Shenzhen, needed to write catchy product descriptions for the blood oxygen monitors he was selling on Amazon, he turned to ChatGPT for help.

“Please use English to write five characteristics of Amazon blood oxygen monitors,” Chen asked the chatbot in Chinese. ChatGPT replied with five bullet points: “accurate readings,” “portable design,” “user-friendly interface,” “long battery life,” and “affordable price.” 

Chen, who sells medical devices and toys on Amazon, understood basic English, but needed help with his writing. He used to translate product descriptions using Google Translate and DeepL, but found ChatGPT to be more “accurate and authentic,” he told Rest of World. 

ChatGPT is not officially available in China. OpenAI has blocked Chinese users from registering for accounts and government regulators have clamped down on domestic proxies. But this hasn’t stopped tech-savvy users from accessing the service through VPNs — virtual private networks that disguise one’s location on the internet —  or buying overseas phone numbers to sign up for accounts. 

ChatGPT’s language-processing abilities have helped cross-border sellers like Chen, who use it to better communicate with their Western customers. An e-commerce marketing specialist in Shanghai, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media, told Rest of World she used ChatGPT to generate names for the clothing her company sells abroad. She described the clothes to ChatGPT — “comfortable,” “well-designed” or “environmentally friendly” — and it responded with suggestions such as “Oceanic Wear,” “Green Waves,” and “Coastal Collective.”

Some developers have built websites that directly integrate ChatGPT’s application programming interface, or API, into their own products, offering users practical guidance on everything from drafting work reports to relationship advice. Social media startup Jike launched a ChatGPT-powered site this month — its services include helping users write “polite” emails, solve workplace issues, and generate an “apology for an angry girlfriend.”

The site, named “AI comes to help” in Chinese, recorded more than 400,000 page views in its first week, its developer Gemma Cheng told Rest of World. Its popular services include chatbots that generate weekly work reports (often expected from employees at Chinese tech companies), restaurant reviews, and dream interpretations.

Liu Shuai, a 20-year old tech worker from Hangzhou, said he had used the site’s “comforting girlfriends” chatbot to draft a text to reassure his girlfriend, who was jealous of his friendships with other women. After he sent an edited version of the heartfelt text to his girlfriend, she forgave him. “[Chatbots] are very useful to a straight man like me,” Liu told Rest of World. “I worry that I will say something wrong and make things worse. AI can give me some pragmatic solutions.” 

“We wanted to do something to lower the barrier of using ChatGPT, and AI products in general,” Cheng said. She added that the development team would consider charging users for the service in the future. 

But ChatGPT-powered services, like Jike’s website, exist in a gray area. Although Chinese regulators have not banned ChatGPT, they have ordered tech companies — such as Tencent and Alibaba’s Ant Group — not to offer access to the chatbot on their platforms, Nikkei Asia reported in February. Some ChatGPT-proxy programs on WeChat that provide similar services have been suspended.

Authorities may have been alarmed by ChatGPT’s responses to sensitive topics that are otherwise censored on the Chinese internet. Social media users had accused ChatGPT of adopting a “Western perspective” when the chatbot referred to reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. State-run newspaper China Daily warned that the chatbot could help the U.S. government in its “manipulation of global narratives.” 

Rest of World found that several OpenAI-powered chatbots on Chinese websites mentioned the 1989 pro-democracy protests in response to the prompt “June 4,” a popular term used by Chinese people to refer to the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Any references to the event, a political taboo, tend to be strictly censored elsewhere on the Chinese internet.

Compared to ChatGPT-powered websites, the alternatives developed by domestic tech companies would be better equipped to comply with censorship regulations and take the needs of domestic users into account, Hao Peiqiang, a developer and tech blogger in Tianjin, told Rest of World. Several Chinese tech giants, including Alibaba and Baidu, have announced plans to develop their own chatbots, with Baidu’s Ernie set to launch in March

Liu Shuai, the tech worker who had turned to Jike’s website for relationship advice, has also used the service to meet many of his other needs. He wrote cat food reviews using its “product review” chatbot, and helped a friend seek advice on navigating office politics through the “workplace therapy” bot. 

Liu said he’d use homegrown chatbots like Baidu’s Ernie, as long as they were just as effective. “If they are convenient and helpful, I can accept them,” he said.