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2020-07-16 13:36:01 Voices

On July 8, Ma Baoli rang in a new era of social media — sort of. With in-person trading suspended because of COVID-19, his long-awaited ceremonial ringing of the Nasdaq opening bell had to be held via video. But if the festivities were virtual, the significance was real: That day, Ma’s BlueCity — operator of the popular hookup and livestreaming app Blued — became the world’s first LGBT-focused social networking company to be listed on Nasdaq.

Going public had been the 43-year-old Ma’s dream since at least 2013, the year BlueCity attracted its first venture capital investment. Not coincidentally, that was also when Ma, himself a gay man, became convinced of the power of capital and the gay-centric “pink economy” to increase gay visibility and raise the status of homosexuality in China. By equating purchasing power with political power, and the commercial success of his own app with the progress of the gay movement as a whole, Ma crafted a narrative in which BlueCity’s successful stock market listing can be considered concrete evidence of increased social recognition for homosexuality in China. If that narrative holds, it also means gay men should support the company as a proxy for their own interests.

Of course, the commercial success of a social app for gays doesn’t necessarily indicate a gay-friendly social environment, not least because Blued has a history of sanding the rougher edges of gay life in pursuit of corporate gain and mainstream acceptance. Indeed, a review of the company’s history shows that, rather than them being mutually reinforcing, Blued has always faced a fundamental contradiction between expanding its business and fulfilling its social mission.

The earliest antecedent of what is now Blued was Ma’s personal blog. Founded in 2000, Ma quickly developed the site into one of the country’s biggest gay-interest sites, Danlan. Despite his early success, however, Ma spent years rebranding to survive repeated campaigns against “obscene” websites. Between 2000 and 2007, Danlan suffered from frequent shutdowns over its homosexual content — though it was also cited by state media leading up to the 2008 Olympics as an example of China’s inclusivity. During this time, the site survived on donations from ordinary gay men.

Eventually, Ma figured out how to smooth over his company’s relationship with the authorities, including by making strategic use of government policies related to HIV/AIDS. In 2008, he turned Danlan into a nongovernmental organization dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention among the gay male community, which gave him breathing room.

But it was the launch of Blued in late 2012 — three years after Grindr’s debut — that marked the company’s biggest transformation, turning it into a tech pioneer. Today, the app offers both social networking and livestreaming services to gay men inside and outside China.

Ma Baoli, founder and CEO of BlueCity Holdings Ltd, speaks ahead of the company’s Nasdaq debut, Beijing, July 8, 2020. Tingshu Wang/People Visual

Ma Baoli, founder and CEO of BlueCity Holdings Ltd, speaks ahead of the company’s Nasdaq debut, Beijing, July 8, 2020. Tingshu Wang/People Visual

BlueCity kept its hybrid structure even after the debut of its star app, combining both internet startup vitality and NGO services. With Blued established as the moneymaker, in 2017 Danlan was fully converted into an HIV/AIDS resource platform. Local government officials now pay visits to BlueCity’s offices in Beijing, and the city certified it as a High and New Tech Enterprise. This recognition led to more political resources, and Ma was named to the boards of several government-affiliated organizations. The company has also donated millions of yuan to HIV/AIDS prevention work, earning it additional favor.

In this way, BlueCity has amassed significantly more political capital than most Chinese gay-centric companies could ever dream of wielding. But recognizing the value of a successful entrepreneur is one thing; recognizing the value of the people who use his product is another. A set of 2017 guidelines from the quasi-official China Netcasting Services Association categorizing homosexual content alongside incest, sexual deviancy, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual violence as “vulgar,” “obscene,” or “pornographic” puts even tame Blued livestreams at risk of censure. In some ways, the situation recalls the early challenges faced by Danlan.

A month after the 2017 rules came out, Blued turned conservative. It removed all homosexuality-related terms — such as “gay” and its slang counterpart tongzhi, or “comrade” — from the product statement on its website. The current description reads: “Blued is an interest-based social app advocating positive, healthy lifestyles and the public good.” In place of gay and tongzhi are vague terms like “friends with shared interests” and “vertical groups.”

BlueCity has amassed significantly more political capital than most Chinese gay-centric companies could ever dream of wielding.

The political and economic considerations behind this revision are obvious. More concerning is the fact that the pink economy Blued relies on isn’t limited to gay-identity-based consumption, but also the exploitation of gay labor.

Although it is known as a gay dating app, Blued earns most of its revenues from livestreaming. According to BlueCity’s prospectus for Nasdaq, livestreaming accounted for 91.3% and 88.5% of its total revenues in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

This economic model has underlying structural problems. Livestreamers aren’t paid a minimum wage, nor are they eligible for employment benefits. And in an increasingly saturated livestreaming market, where intimacy is a competitive edge, gay livestreamers find themselves forced to mine their personal lives and emotions for commercial appeal. In this way, Blued profits from the relocation of labor competition onto a vulnerable group.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to Blued, nor is it the only app to profit from livestreamers’ emotional labor, but it’s a bad look for a company that has built so much of its appeal upon gay men’s desire for social recognition and status. In effect, it’s telling gay Chinese that societal acceptance can be theirs, provided they have the resources to buy it — or the willingness to sell parts of themselves.

In other words, BlueCity is still far from achieving the mutually beneficial balance between developing the pink economy and advancing the social recognition of homosexuality Ma envisioned. If he’s serious about the values he professes, Blued needs to leverage its influence to facilitate policy changes. Challenging regulations that associate homosexuality with “vulgarity,” “obscenity,” and “pornography” would be a good place to start.

I am not suggesting anything politically radical. To paraphrase Ma, the pursuit of policy change can be conversational instead of confrontational. But effecting policy change requires Blued to stop playing on the safe side and to push for progressive reforms.

In the absence of such steps, the festivities surrounding BlueCity’s IPO were essentially a celebration of the already privileged. It was a victory for Ma, his investors, and the pink economy, even as his mission of advancing the social recognition of homosexuality faded into the background.

Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

(Header image: A staff member of BlueCity Holdings Ltd, wears a rainbow corsage ahead of the company’s Nasdaq debut, Beijing, July 8, 2020. Tingshu Wang/People Visual)