China's new gay match-making smartphone app Blued has amassed 2 million users nationwide in a little over a year, the company’s CEO announced Wednesday amid reports in Chinese state media that internet hook-ups are helping to fuel an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the People's Republic.
"The customer response has been great," CEO Geng Le told Al Jazeera, adding that he feels his company is part of the solution, not the problem, to China's HIV/AIDS epidemic. "We have helped the government spread education to combat the HIV/AIDS information."
Geng, a 36-year-old entrepreneur from China's northern Hebei province, has great ambitions. He estimates that there are 13 million gay men in China. Blued aims to penetrate 10 million smartphones across the country.
"There are so many gays in China, just because of the sheer size of the population," Geng said.
Nevertheless, Blued faces international competition.
Grindr, a popular U.S.-based gay hook-up app, is still not as popular in China as Belgium-based Jack'd, said Shanghai native Clint Wang, 27.
"I use Grindr, but people in China use it so little," he said.
Chinese gay men – including Wang and Geng – typically refer to Jack'd by its Chinese name jie ke di, which literally translates to a place where a sex worker finds his or her John.
Geng says Blued has already surpassed Jack'd in China, and while the Belgian app enjoys strong numbers in big cities like Shanghai, Blued has already monopolized the market in China's second- and third-tier cities.
"Jack'd doesn't have great Android capabilities, whereas Blued does," Geng explains.
Jack'd was not immediately available for comment at the time of publication.
Blued revealed its latest figures shortly after United Nations World AIDS Day on Sunday, the same day that China's state-owned Xinhua news agency reported that health authorities and researchers worry the use of the Internet by gay and bisexual men hoping to meet "Mr. Right…may exacerbate the country's already-high prevalence of HIV among MSM (men who have sex with men)."
Statistics on Beijing's own HIV "epidemic" surfaced ahead of World AIDS Day. The percentage of HIV infections from sex has more than doubled since 2007 to 96.7 percent, overtaking drugs as the leading cause of infections locally.
Many of the men using gay hook-up apps in China are looking for sex, Wang admitted, but he asserted safe sex is easier to find now than it was before the apps existed.
Wang said that when he logs onto Jack'd anywhere in China, men typically greet him and almost immediately engage in discussions on casual sex. Before the apps, it was a lot harder to find STD-free sexual partners, he said.
"People did it in bathrooms," he said, which was scarier "because you don't know who you are doing it with. You don't know if he's good or bad or what."
Zhang Beichuan, a noted voice on gay and sex health issues in China, agreed with Wang. Although it is easier for gay men to find sex using apps, it's also easier for them to find long-term, healthy sexual relationships, he said.
"This issue has two sides," said Zhang. Some people can more easily find casual sex, "but we never think people can also find regular sexual and romantic relationships."
Blued's Geng also expressed opposition to the report.
"If HIV/AIDS is an issue, it's because of bad sexual practices," like unprotected sex, and misinformation, Geng said, not apps themselves.
Tom Myers, spokesman and general counsel at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Washington, D.C., echoed Geng's opinion.
"It sounds funky to me,” he said. “I'd have to see what evidence the (Xinhua) report is relying on."
"What drives the epidemic in the U.S. and in most of the world is people who have HIV and don't know they have HIV," said Myers, adding that finding treatment allows people with HIV to become up to 96 percent non-infectious. "That's a better success rate than condoms."