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Sexuality with Chinese Characteristics: The Case of Momo

Beijing front gate ©️ Goodfreephotos_com / Public Domain / Pixabay

“Across the Great Wall, we can reach every corner in the world.” These were the words typed in the first email ever sent in China. It was the 20th of September 1987. Nobody would have imagined that in thirty-five years China would report “the world's most active environment for social media” (Wang, 2016). Nowadays, more than 90% of Chinese people have a social media account, whereas the number nearly reaches 70% in the U.S. (ibidem). 1978 is not a random year. The death of Mao Zedong, just two years before, in September 1976, created a power vacuum until the members of the Party decided on Deng Xiaoping’s designation. In those years, Deng introduced the so-called “socialist market economy”, and gave birth to a series of reforms named “Chinese economic reform” or “Reform and opening-up” or still “Opening of China” (改革开放). They had a huge impact on the Chinese economy and society: since 1978, the GDP has increased ten times, poverty has dropped significantly and the market has opened also to foreign investors. According to President Zhou, the first phase of the reform, the "Four Modernization" (四个现代化), had the goal to transform various sectors, including agriculture, industry, military defense, and scientific technology (Benson, 2011).

In the 1970s, the Chinese government played a big role in the allocation of national resources to make China a "technological superpower” (Wang, 2020). At the beginning of the 21st century, indeed, China became the largest telephone market globally, and a few years after, Chinese internet users joined the same record. Although we can certainly affirm that China transited “from a technologically underdeveloped country to a global technological leader,” (Ghiretti, 2020) in 2019, good internet connection is less present in rural areas (39.8%) compared to the European Union (86%), moreover is it controlled and censored by the party. However, big disparities remained between Chinese urban (75.8%) and rural areas (ibidem).

On the contrary, the use of technology and in particular of social media in everyday life is more widespread in China than in Europe: in the Dragoon Country, cashless payments and smart city services are made just by one app, Weixin (微信), the Western “ WeChat,” which reunites all the functions that are generally accessed separately outside China. Regarding dating apps, the story is the same. Chinese dating platforms differ from Western ones : they also reunite marketing functions or offer services of sexual counseling and disease prevention (Venza, 2020). In China, the pandemic has not just led to the growth of remote working or distance learning, online dating has also increased exponentially . The numbers are clear: analysis says that in four years, a third of the Chinese population will use them (ibidem).

There are many dating apps on the Chinese market, however, the most popular remains Momo, with almost 52.6 million monthly active users (Statista, 2021). Although its initial launch was not easy, the app has registered a growing number of users in recent years (East Media, 2020). In June 2018, 55.72% of Momo’s users were male, and more than 70% were young people between the ages of 18 and 35 (Weishan, Jian, 2020). This success is caused mainly by two factors: first of all the C ovid-19 pandemic, which forced people to reduce face-to-face meetings, and the feeling of isolation that young people experience when they move from the countryside to the gigantic Chinese metropolis. However, most of Momo’ s users are not permanent urban residents, but often commuters or business people who remain in the city for a few days. Last but not least, women also represent a large category of users, in part due to the increasingly female emancipation trends (de Seta, Zhang, 2015).

Momo (陌陌) literally means “stranger, stranger” and it has partially been able to transform the Chinese traditional sexual culture and ideology (Weishan & Jian, 2020). Present since 2014 on the Nasdaq title, it uses GPS technology to find contacts near your area. The app collects positive reviews in the Chinese press, which believes that it has led to “China’s sexual revolution”, offering Chinese people a “path to the forbidden” (de Seta, Xhang, 2015). The CEO of Momo, Tang Yan, remarked that the app “provides [the users] with unlimited possibilities and imaginary spaces” (ibidem).

The most important thing is that when you are on a business trip and you are alone in the hotel, you can use the location-based service (LBS) of your mobile phone to find out that there is a young woman next door who is experiencing the same thing with you (Weishan, Jian, 2020).

Momo has normalized the concept of sexual networking, earning the merit to have turned “ the exploration of sexual relationships from a serious and traditional cultural experience into a new, pan-networking digital practice that is relaxing and entertaining” (ibidem). Momo successfully gained some space between sexual emancipation and the Chinese traditional political atmosphere. In fact, Chinese society increasingly cohabits urbanization, individualism , women emancipation while at the same time Chinese political ideology preserves sexual integrity and morality: a sort of sexuality with Chinese characteristics.

Despite that, the use of Momo for casual sex has been criticized by the media and the Chinese government, in particular by “China’s Working Group on Eliminating Pornography and Illegal Publication,” (Tingting, 2016) which accused the app of compromising the traditional family, inciting prostitution and other sexual crimes. A woman, on the social network Weibo, commented:

“You have invented such a harmful thing to society. I always find my husband chatting and even dating other women via Momo. He has changed nine different Momo accounts” (ibidem).

As a consequence, the Chinese government fined the dating app, forcing it to start advertising campaigns to address its bad reputation and to transform itself into a more traditional social network. For example, the “ explicit” “groups function,” used to practice casual sex, has been converted into a more neutral service called "chatroom” where users can share and talk about their interests and hobbies (Weishan, Jian, 2020). The aim of the Party is to stress that common interests are fundamental even in a one-night stand relationship. Recently , the app has also added services for parents to find missing children, to help stray cats (Tingting, 2016) and to entertain, losing part of its initial essence and leading to a slowdown in new users as a result (Weishan, Jian, 2020). According to the CEO:

“Momo used to be like the dating corner in Shanghai People’s Park. People come and people go. But now, Momo is like Disneyland with all the fun facilities […].” (ibidem).

We do not know what the future holds for Momo, or how the dating app ecosystem will evolve in China. Will the Party lighten the ties a little or will it increase control on social networks and the private love-life?

Antonella Benedetto attends the Master’s Joint Degree in International Security Studies at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies together with the University of Trento. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology at the University of Urbino. Passionate about EU-China relations, US-China relations, Chinese culture, history, and politics, she has been attending since last year Chinese language courses at the Confucius Institute reaching the HSK 2 level. You can find her on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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