One of the most fascinating realities of China’s tech ecosystem is just how creative its users have proven to be.
Besides powering the push toward the world’s first almost-entirely cashless economy, and contributing to its supersized marketplaces and information hubs, Chinese millennials are also driving the demand behind virtual services that are often eye-opening, and sometimes outrageous — even for people that regularly comb the platforms that they are offered on.
From ordering digital mosquitos to online fatherhood, RADII takes a closer look at some of the more unusual virtual services on the market.
Virtual people are hardly an unfamiliar concept in China, given the growth of virtual influencers in fashion and ecommerce in recent years. Virtual lovers, however, are a less visible phenomenon, emerging as early as 2014 on online shopping platform Taobao, on Reddit-like website Baidu Tieba, and even as a “virtual girlfriend” developed by Microsoft, XiaoBing (which was hit with a WeChat ban in 2019).
Through these services, customers can buy romantic companionship, usually through texting, phone calls, and sometimes video calls, depending on their comfort level. Services many include listening to clients’ complaints about life, offering emotional support, and wishing customers good night. You can also request them to “cosplay” as anime and video game characters. Perhaps the movie Her was partly shot in Shanghai for good reason.
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There are lines, however, that virtual lovers do not cross. They make it explicit that sexual interactions are forbidden, and that transactions do not involve in-person meet-ups.
A greeting from one Taobao “virtual lover” vendor
The price of these virtual partners varies depending on the length of the service as well as its quality and the client’s requests. A vendor on Taobao that we contacted offers a surprisingly nuanced variety of services — not only can you specify the personality of your virtual lover, but there are also multilingual options such as English, French, Korean and Japanese.
An hour-long “romance” may cost as little as 30RMB (around 4.30USD), or as much as 300RMB. Meanwhile an entire month of companionship can cost between 666 and 1,888RMB (around 95-269USD), according to a pricing table the vendor sent us.
Pricing for a virtual “lover for hire”
According to a 2020 study, young women tend to dominate this industry both as buyers and sellers. Xu Zhiwei, co-author of the study, estimates that for every male customer, there are three female ones.
One explanation is that many young Chinese have found themselves struggling to strike a balance between life and long work hours. This is especially true for Chinese women, who are now facing growing expectations to find financial stability and career success for themselves — despite pervasive gender inequality in the workplace — while facing pressure from family and friends to marry and have children. Stressed out by all these expectations, customers either have limited time to date, need someone to take care of their emotional needs, or simply want a companion — however temporary it might be.
There are also reasonable worries about how the industry can be abused, such as potential transactional sex and financial scams. For these reasons, it currently operates within something of a gray area in the ecommerce realm.
You may be feeling exhausted or heartbroken. Perhaps you tell yourself that you aren’t good enough. But there are people out there that can tell you otherwise.
For 45RMB (or around 6.50USD), you can add yourself or a friend to a kuakua qun (夸夸群), or “compliment group” on messaging app WeChat for five minutes. In these groups, paid professionals will write you messages filled with unconditional, passionate praise.
Before one could pay for such groups, a version of them existed on Chinese social networking platform Douban as “mutual praise groups.” As the name implies, members would praise each another unconditionally, providing a needed dose of positive feedback to a fellow user. Given the ubiquity of WeChat — China’s most widely-used messaging app — you need only type in a few keywords to get the praise you’ve always craved.
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Upon entering one of these groups ourselves, we assumed the compliments would be boring and generic, along the lines of a Google search for “how to cheer someone up.” Instead, we found that the cheering actually cut pretty deep, and was at times poetic, citing classic Chinese myths and proverbs.
The process typically goes something like this: after ordering the service, you briefly introduce yourself with some of your interests, and describe what areas you wish to get some words of encouragement in. Within minutes, you are invited to a WeChat group where 15 people are waiting to shower you with compliments.
These complimenters will have already changed their aliases in the group to assume their new roles, such as “[Name] is my God/Goddess,” or “I am the escort of Little Fairy [Name]” and “[Name] I Love You.” For the next five minutes, whether you like it or not, your phone will blow up with some of the most flattering messages you may have ever received.
Messages in our WeChat “compliment group”
“I am head over heels for you,” reads one message. “You are stunning enough to make fish sink and geese settle, for the moon to hide and flowers to feel shy. Your beauty makes Xi Shi [西施, one of the Four Beauties in ancient China] and Diao Chan [貂蝉, another of the Four Beauties] ashamed of their inferiority.”
“Beautiful and intelligent,” adds another one.
Though it may seem impersonal to get compliments from paid strangers on the internet, the groups are nevertheless an effective method to get a temporary ego boost.
But while enjoying the praise, we are abruptly kicked out of the compliment group without realizing the five minutes are up, left only with the bitter realization that such joy and fulfillment in life are all too transient — and in this case, come at a price.
“I bought you a virtual dad,” a friend writes us as we undergo research for this article. “He’s on his way.” A virtual… “daddy?”
“No, a virtual dad.”
And then, our dad enters the chat. “How’s it going, you little brat?” he writes to us on WeChat, after our friend ordered his services through Alibaba’s secondhand online sales market Xianyu (闲鱼).
While we are concerned by his somewhat abusive, un-parent-like language, like all good children we ask him for some extra allowance, which turns out to be a mistake — he subsequently gives us a 10-minute lecture on how not to waste money in nightclubs.
Meeting our “virtual dad”
Among the similar services available on Xianyu are virtual animals that you can “talk” to on WeChat. Baffled, we decided to order a duck for ourselves.
“Hey, I am a duck demon,” it says upon arrival into our chat, before bombarding us with messages that read “quack, quack, quack” over and over. It might have been sending an SOS signal, but we simply had no way to decipher.
We try to banter with the demon, as we know there is a real person behind the screen. “Do you know any other sounds?” we ask, before receiving the sole comprehensible reply among the “quacks”: “How else would a duck sound, Miss?” Our screen was then promptly flooded with more quacking for two minutes straight, before the service ended and the demon left as mysteriously as it came, like our army of complimenters in the kuakua group.
Though our “duck demon” was likely just copying and pasting the same words over and over, at the price of 0.5RMB (less than 0.1USD) per minute it isn’t a terrible deal.
We finally get ahold of the person behind the animal noises account. He turns out to be a bored university student stuck at home because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. On a normal day, he usually receives around 30 orders, which brings in about 30RMB (around 4.28USD).
“Mosquitoes are the most popular ones here for gifting. People order it for their friends to play a prank,” he explains.
Our virtual “duck demon”
Besides offering virtual animals, the student also sells performances of the suona (唢呐) — a traditional Chinese instrument that has a high-pitched, yet beautiful sound. In July, in the midst of the national testing season for middle and high schoolers, two “good luck” songs were advertised for as low as 2RMB (0.27USD) for any student that needs some extra good wishes.
Other virtual services that are popular on the market include cursing, game-playing accompaniment, morning alarms, and hypnosis. If you can imagine it, you can probably find it somehow.
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As fun and harmless as these virtual services may sound, you aren’t able to find them by searching keywords on Taobao and WeChat anymore. Chinese internet censors implemented a crackdown on these services in November 2014 for unspecified reasons, prompting virtual vendors to operate in more invisible marketplaces using alternate keywords and word-of-mouth.
Whether or not the emergence of these virtual services will be integrated into an ever-growing virtual economy, and how Chinese regulators will respond, will be something interesting to watch in the coming years. Yet from our experience, the most obvious takeaway is this: never underestimate the imagination of Chinese netizens.
Reporting: Tianyu Fang and Siyuan Meng Header illustration: Mayura Jain
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