Tea Leaf Nation

In China, People Aren’t for Sale, but They Are for Rent

A new wave of startups exploits a legal gray zone between social networking and facilitating prostitution.

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Wang Wenzi is a 19-year-old college student from the scenic southern Chinese city of Hangzhou. By day, she goes to class and hangs out with friends. By night, she rents herself out to strangers, mostly men, for about $15 per hour. She meets them through a mobile platform called kuai lai zu wo, or Quick Come Rent Me, the latest Chinese start-up to walk a fine line between social network and illegal sex service. 

In China, where mobile apps are garnering huge amounts of traffic and money, and where competition for users — especially young ones — is growing more heated, it’s not surprising that some will do whatever it takes to succeed. That includes apps that present a real danger for prostitution, even rape. The Chinese government has been engaged in a long-running campaign against online pornography. But the flourishing of platforms like Quick Come Rent Me show the limits to what China’s government has been willing or able to accomplish so far.

Quick Come Rent Me, like dozens of similar services, operates through a public account on mobile app WeChat, a widely-used chat service that also acts as a platform for other applications. It’s not the first; the online people-renting business has been popular in China for several years. By 2011, users of shopping site Taobao could already “rent” a temporary boyfriend or girlfriend, often during family gatherings at the lunar new year holiday, to deflect parental pressure to find a spouse. More recently, the renting business has become a more regular part of socializing and dating, and startups in this space have even earned funding from angel investors. A search for the phrase “rent people” in WeChat revealed 38 public accounts allowing users to rent people by the hour as companions in such pursuits as eating and watching television.

These activities are not necessarily as innocuous as they sound, and platforms often advertise their services using coded language the dangles the possibility of sex. A platform called Rent a Girl, for example, describes its services as “dating magic” where users can “rent a person to accompany you to play games, eat, sing karaoke, even fall in love.” And in April, Quick Come Rent Me launched a new service called jiaochuang, literally, “call bed.” The term means to wake someone up in the morning — but it also means to moan during intercourse. The advertisement features a scantily clad woman and sports the tagline: “No matter how awkward the call, you won’t be able to hang up.” Subtle.

According to Quick Come Rent Me co-founder Fan Yulong, “If we discover bad behavior, we immediately delete the user’s profile.” But in a March interview, Fan said only about 20 profiles on the platform had been removed, which if true would constitute a vanishingly small portion of the app’s approximately half-million users. Users registering a profile to rent themselves out do undergo a verification process, and some profiles are not approved. The platform allows, but does not require, that users upload their IDs for real-name authentication. There is no “report” bottom on profile pages; users must reach out to a separate WeChat account for customer service to report misbehavior.

Apps like Quick Come Rent Me occupy a legal “gray area,” according to Zhu Wei, a professor at China University of Political science and Law in Beijing and an expert in Chinese Internet governance. It’s legal to rent out services online. But “you cannot rent out your body as the subject of a [business] contract,” Zhao Zhanlin, a lawyer who specializes in Chinese cyberspace law, told Foreign Policy. “If you rent a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a prostitute, or a mistress, it’s not a valid contract; it’s illegal.” The crux of the problem is how to determine responsibility for illegal activities occurring on the platform. “Our country has not specifically clarified the platform’s responsibility,” said Zhu. “Regulations clearly state that if a problem arises, and it is discovered that the platform knowingly let it happen, then [the platform] bears responsibility. What kind of situation counts as ‘knowingly’?”

The definition of “knowingly” throws the legality of such apps into doubt. According to Chinese Internet regulations, platforms are responsible for censoring “unhealthy information,” and laws prohibit content that “propagates obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, murder or fear, or incites the commission of crimes.” But it’s difficult for Quick Come Rent Me employees to know what happens offline when two users meet. “If there’s nothing wrong with the user’s profile but the actual behavior is illegal, it’s very difficult for the platform to discover it,” said Zhao. And some start-ups, he added, are more lax at the beginning as they try to build a user base.

Some platforms appear to be in a dash for more funding in China’s hot start-up scene. Launched in June 2015, Quick Come Rent Me is owned by Hangzhou-based private corporation Hangzhou AiYo Technology Ltd. In March, the platform secured over $770,000 in funding from an anonymous investor. One similar platform, Rent Me, has its own app and does not rely on WeChat; in September 2015, it raised about $1.5 million from an angel investor. 

Scrutiny on apps like Quick Come Rent Me is likely to grow. Prostitution and pornography are technically illegal in China, although hair salons and massage parlors that double as brothels are common, not to mention obvious. Chinese authorities make periodic efforts to enforce the bans by arresting sex workers and clients, closing venues, and shutting down websites that post obscene content. An annual government online campaign to “sweep out porn, strike at rumors” has targeted porn sites and other online content deemed objectionable, including the Tinder-like Chinese dating app Momo. State new agency Xinhua slammed Momo in April 2014, describing it as “mobile base” for the sex trade, although it continues to run. By contrast, YY.com, a platform for online hostesses who live-stream video chats and sing songs for captivated male fans, keeps itself from being shut down by screening content on the site and fining hostesses who post overtly sexual videos.

As with many dating websites, Quick Come Rent Me’s paying customers are largely male. Fan told FP via WeChat that 70 percent of his platform’s users are men; later, this reporter logged on and noticed that the listed numbers appeared far more balanced. In a follow-up conversation, Fan said that his site controlled the number of male profiles visible on the site, but later tried to retract that comment. Men usually act as buyers, not sellers – those who do seek to “rent” themselves out usually fetch a price around one or two dollars per hour, in contrast to Wang Wenzi’s $15-per-hour rate. One 47-year-old man, who lives in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, indicates on his Quick Come Rent Me profile that he “lasts long in bed.” (The platform has not removed the profile despite its explicit sexual references.)

Some of the many men on the platform insist they use it for companionship, and nothing more. Mars Ma, a 30-year-old married man who lives in Beijing, is an occasional Quick Come Rent Me user, on the buy side. “I mostly rent when I’m out traveling,” Ma told FP. “I can find some local people to tell me where I should go to have fun.” He said he only contacts female users, but insisted that his wife knows.

Wang registered on Quick Come Rent Me in July 2015. Her profile photo highlights her cascading long hair, pale skin, and large eyes, all features considered especially desirable among many Chinese. In her profile, Wang indicates she is available for such activities as as “horse riding, archery, shopping, photography, eating, and partying.” After browsing her photos and profile information, other users can place an order through the platform. Wang then receives a message on her phone notifying her of the order, which she can either approve or reject.

Wang told FP she frequently receives rental requests, and has a system for vetting them. “If he is handsome, I can start chatting with him and see if our interests and hobbies are the same,” said Wang in a phone interview. “I can choose whether to accept him or not.” Wang said she usually goes out to dinner with her clients; the man pays for the meal and she gets to choose where to eat. She said that she is not looking for a boyfriend, and sees Quick Come Rent Me as a way to connect to people with similar interests.

But Wang also said that sexual contact between two Quick Come Rent Me users is “very commonplace,” although she doesn’t view such contact as prostitution. “It’s consensual,” she said. “It’s a very normal phenomenon.” Wang may not view the platform as a way to sell sex, but it’s clear that some male users do. “You converse with them just two sentences and you’ll know,” said Wang. “They say ‘I want to rent you a little longer, how about I rent you for the whole night?’ I will immediately refuse in this type of situation.” Some female users market themselves to meet that demand. “I’ve seen two girls’ profiles that are very vague, but it’s easy to tell with one look what it means,” said Ma. “They write their breast, waist, and hip measurements on their profiles, and also things like ‘I guarantee your satisfaction.’”

Fan insists that Quick Come Rent Me helps open up social lives for young Chinese, whom he says otherwise often stay at home on weekends and play on their cell phones. Fan added the platform is intended to offer young people “something interesting and fun” while allowing them to make money. But Zhu thinks that Quick Come Rent Me has not gone far enough to prevent illegal behavior, and that “as soon as one or two cases” of misbehavior hit the headlines, the app will be in trouble. “If had to make a prediction,” Zhu said, it “will not last long.”

Photo via Kuai Lai Zu Wo/Fair Use

Jiayan Xie is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s data specialization program.

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