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Xinzhou is a tonic food seller.

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True colours: the dating app giving gay men in China a new sense of freedom

Oct 30, 2020

Very large text size Like many gay Chinese growing up at the turn of the millennium, Duan Shuai began his long, deliberate process of coming out online. After school, he would visit the newly opened internet cafe in his hometown, Xinzhou, a small city in Shanxi Province bounded by a veil of mountains. He would pick a desktop facing away from the wall so that nobody could look over his shoulder. Then he’d go to QQ, the new instant-messaging service and online forum, and type in the Chinese word for “homosexual” – tongzhi, or comrade. Offline, Duan had known for a long time that he was different – and he knew no one else like him. Even in primary school, while his male classmates talked about girls, he nursed a secret crush on a boy, a gregarious, basketball-playing class monitor. Online, he stumbled into a world where he finally felt he belonged, a place where gay people like himself sought kinship and connection. Blued, the social networking app with the slogan "He's right next door", aims to bring together gay men from all segments of Chinese society into one digital ecosystem. Credit:Timo Lenzen/The New York Times When he was 17, he watched Lan Yu, a 2001 Chinese film about a love affair between a male college student from northern China and a businessman in Beijing, based on a novel published online by an author known only as Beijing Comrade. Duan was moved by one scene in particular, in which the businessman brings his lover home for the Chinese New Year to share a customary hotpot meal with his family. He caught a glimpse into a future he never knew existed – a future that was perhaps within his reach, too. A diligent student, Duan aced his gaokao – China’s national entrance exam – and moved from his secluded hometown to the city of Tianjin, studying literature at a top university. To familiarise himself with China’s burgeoning gay culture, he listened to talks by the gender-studies scholar Li Yinhe on the popular television channel Hunan TV; read Crystal Boys, a novel about gay youth in Taipei by the Taiwanese writer Bai Xianyong; and frequented online chat rooms for gay men like Boy Air, BF99, Don’t Cry My Friends and the local Tianjin Cool, where he met his first boyfriend, a graduate student five years his senior. Advertisement As Duan came of age, so did the Chinese internet. In 2000, when he was still in primary school, there were about 23 million Chinese internet users; today that number has swelled to more than 900 million, and a vast majority of them are using mobile devices. Whereas Duan once sought out gay communities in small groups and quiet bars, today, as a 33-year-old working in publishing in Beijing, he can join gay meet-ups on WeChat; follow blogs and coming-out stories on Weibo , a Twitter-like platform; and, perhaps most crucial, he can connect and find partners on Blued, a gay social networking app. When Duan opens up the app anywhere in the country, be it in Beijing’s bustling commercial district Sanlitun or back in Xinzhou, he’ll find an endless scroll of users: cosmopolitan yuppies dressed in drag, rural blue-collar workers with faceless profiles. The company’s slogan, “He’s Right Next Door,” embodies its ethos: to bring together gay men from all segments of Chinese society into one digital ecosystem. China is home to an LGBTQ population larger than all of France, about 70 million people (based on the assumption that about 5 per cent of any given population identifies as queer). But according to a United Nations estimate , less than 5 per cent of gay Chinese choose to come out. Blued (pronounced “blue-duh” or “blue-dee”) has a reported in-country user base of some 24 million, suggesting many Chinese have opted for some middle ground. Blued is in a peculiar position: it might be the biggest app of its kind, yet it is also the most precarious. It is a tech company in a society that has been transformed by free-market reforms, but also a gay tech company operating under a one-party government with an ambiguous stance toward LGBTQ issues that has been tightening its grip in recent years. Internationally, China has publicly vocalised its support for gay rights at the United Nations, stating that it opposes all forms of “discrimination, violence and intolerance based on sexual orientation”. But domestically, gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples are not allowed, and there are no known openly gay public figures in the government or explicit forms of legal protection against LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace. On one hand, the rise of the Chinese internet, facilitated by the last three decades of market reforms, has allowed for unprecedented connection and visibility for gay communities in China. But since 2016, as part of a cultural crackdown on “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content” – which includes everything from hip-hop music to tattoos – China’s regulators have banned portrayals of “abnormal sexual relations” in television, including same-sex relationships. Popular Chinese shows with gay storylines were removed from screening sites. Following one of these bans, Blued scrubbed homosexuality-related words like “gay” and “tongzhi” from its Chinese website, changing the official company description to The World’s Leading Interest-Based Social Health Education Network. (The company declined to comment for this article, which draws on interviews with several investors and former employees and published sources.) By framing the fight for gay recognition in terms of business, the company has cultivated a minority community free of political activism. No LGBTQ group has performed this dance with the authorities as successfully and carefully as Blued, a for-profit entity. By staying within the commercial and public-health sectors and framing the fight for gay recognition in terms of business, the company, under the leadership of its founder and CEO, Geng Le, has cultivated a minority community free of political activism. Blued and its related services operate under the aegis of Blue City, which is also the name of its two-storey headquarters in central Beijing. Inside, it looks like “any other tech start-up”, says Sifan Lu, Geng’s former personal assistant, “but just slightly gayer”. At the entrance, on a wall next to a table of glass bottles of sand imported from Geng’s hometown, the Chinese words: “Qinhuangdao’s sea and sand, that is the home of Danlan.” Danlan was the bare-bones, browser-based website that Geng created nearly two decades ago. Back then, Geng went by his birth name, Ma Baoli, and he began his career as a police officer in Qinhuangdao, a small seaside city in China’s northern Hebei Province. In 2000, under the pseudonym Geng Le and with the help of a coding book he bought called The Oriental King of Web-Making, he created a website for gay men to connect, exchange personal stories and share information on everything from safe sex to gay literature, naming it Danlan: “light blue”, after the colour of the water off the Qinhuangdao coast. Like the sea – faraway, yet full of possibility – Danlan would be a sanctuary for gay men to express their hopes and fears. Long-standing Confucian traditions and values – an emphasis on having a respectable marriage, giving birth to sons, saving face and filial piety – remain deeply embedded in the fabric of Chinese society. This dynamic also means that family is the place where rejection and discrimination occur most frequently, particularly among the older generation. These paradoxes are clearly visible in the figure of Jin Xing , the nationally beloved talk-show host sometimes called China’s Oprah: she is a transgender woman, and the reluctant face of trans China, but she also often espouses conservative gender norms, like the importance of a woman’s domestic role in childbearing and good housekeeping. China’s one-child policy further increased pressure on some gay Chinese to stay in the closet and enter heterosexual relationships, because parents pinned all their hopes on one child to provide genetic, legally recognised grandchildren to continue the family line. This emphasis on upholding traditional family and marital institutions has driven many Chinese to participate in xinghun: “co-operative marriages”, often between a gay man and a lesbian, to keep up the appearance of heterosexual life. The internet has facilitated these arrangements, with websites like claiming to have arranged hundreds of thousands of marriages over the past decade. By 2008, the number of internet users in China had grown a hundredfold since Geng founded Danlan. To meet rapidly growing demand, he recruited five other team members, running the website out of a rented apartment and working through the night. Eventually, he expanded to Beijing, keeping up this double life. In 2012 Geng received a call from his police bureau, demanding he return to his post. His bosses gave him an ultimatum: shut down the website or quit his job and leave. He handed in his resignation that day, along with the uniform he’d worn since he was 16. He was disgraced – spurned by his colleagues, disapproved of by his parents – and his marriage dissolved. But he had finally come out. Private enterprises in China must navigate government officialdom without being directly confrontational, operating by a set of rules that are as opaque as they are capriciously applied. Crucial to Blued’s success was its ability to align its agenda with the interests of authority. When Geng arrived in Beijing, he saw that government interventions were failing in China’s growing HIV epidemic. (An estimated 780,000 Chinese would contract HIV by the end of 2011, with homosexual transmission accounting for almost a fifth of infections.) Geng contacted the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to offer Danlan’s services in public-health outreach, securing the company’s first government partnership in 2009. Today, Blued runs HIV-testing offices with the CDC in Beijing and an online databank that connects users with other testing centres nationwide. This alliance with the government gave the company legitimacy in the eyes of the public and prospective investors. In November 2012, the CDC invited Danlan to take part in a conference on World AIDS Day led by a high-ranking official, Li Keqiang, now second in command to President Xi Jinping. “Greetings, Premier, I run a gay website,” Geng Le said to Li as he shook his hand. The handshake – captured as a photograph, shared widely in the media and later hung at the entrance of Blue City headquarters – changed the company’s fate. It was the party’s stamp of approval, and that seemed to lay the foundations for the company’s rapid growth. “Being gay in china, as long as you keep your sexual orientation private, you are fine. But you cannot receive public respect.” Danlan introduced the Blued app in 2012, a few years before the government introduced a nationwide policy to boost its tech economy. The company, once kept alive by 50- to 500-yuan donations, received its first angel investment of roughly $US480,000 in 2013. It then raised a Series A round investment of $US1.6 million led by the venture-capital firm Crystal Stream and in 2014 raised an additional $US30 million from another venture-capital firm, DCM. Bloomberg News has cited insiders’ predictions that should the company go public, which in 2019 it was reported to be considering, it could be valued at as much as $US1 billion. Proving gay China’s worth in the marketplace first, the argument goes, will shift public perception and pave the way for greater acceptance and freedoms. But according to Wang Shuaishuai, a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam researching digital gay-dating communities in China, this strategy might prove limited. Although social networking apps like Blued have allowed communities to form, they are closed, not public forums where Chinese people can build movements for their political rights. “The problem with being gay in China is that as long as you keep your sexual orientation private, you are fine,” Wang says. “But you cannot receive public respect and recognition.” If there were an LGBTQ website whose major purpose was to discuss LGBTQ activism, it would be gone within a week, according to Dan Zhou, an openly gay Chinese lawyer who specialises in gay rights. “Every day, somebody could shut down your website without prior notice,” Zhou says. Duan Shuai came out to his parents two years ago, at 30. It was Chinese New Year, and his mother was asking, once again, when he would bring a wife home. When he told her the truth, she cried, asking him to leave and never come back. “For many Chinese, coming out is long and drawn out,” Duan says. “Most people don’t just stride out of the closet like in American movies and announce that they are gay in this sudden, dramatic way. They’ll often agonise over it for years, gather a lot of information and place it by their parents’ bedside table, hoping that one day they’ll begin to understand.” Last May, in the bustling centre of Beijing, Duan was standing by the keg station, wearing a rainbow-printed T-shirt, at the “Gaymazing Race”, a party co-hosted by the Beijing LGBT Centre and the local craft-beer brewery Great Leap Brewing. “Right now, we’re going through a bit of a winter,” Duan explained to me. New laws governing NGOs have limited the ability for LGBTQ groups to register and raise funds. But Duan and essentially everyone I have spoken to involved in China’s LGBTQ life – straight and gay, closeted and out, NGO volunteers and venture capitalists – seem to echo the same sentiment, that the freeze will pass. In contrast to other minority groups, the LGBTQ community poses no explicit threat to party rule and is too low-priority to be on the government’s radar. After all, China’s gay population cuts across all sectors of society – from Shanxi to Shanghai, from the political margins to within the party itself. “Blued and other LGBT social media have connected the community in ways not possible before." In December, in response to a groundswell of suggestions for the updated draft of China’s civil code, China’s legislature publicly acknowledged that when the government solicited public opinions last fall, it received a wave of requests for the legalisation of same-sex marriage. While same-sex marriage in China remains a distant reality , this was a clear indication that the government was acknowledging the status of an increasingly visible community. “Blued and other LGBT social media have connected the community in ways not possible before, laying the groundwork for a broad social movement,” says Darius Longarino, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Centre. But, he added, to push for greater change, they need a critical mass of Chinese to come to their side. In January, Duan went home to celebrate Chinese New Year in Shanxi. Like hundreds of thousands of young Chinese who travelled back for the holidays, he was cooped up at home since, waiting out the coronavirus. A lot has changed since he came out to his mother two years ago. She’s not totally comfortable with his sexuality, he says, but can now talk openly with him about his work at the LGBT Centre and even his new boyfriend. Duan told me that young people ask him, in his work at the centre, whether they should come out. He warns them that the challenges they face will be immense, but he remains optimistic about the internet’s power to change minds. “I was accepted,” he tells them, “more quickly than I could’ve imagined. Edited version of a story first published in The New York Times Magazine. © 2020 The New York Times.

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