Some 200 million Chinese, or 14% of China's population, equivalent to the entire nation of Brazil, are single, and, well, ready to mingle, representing a huge market for certain products and services such as online dating apps and matchmaking bureaus.
Call it the Singles Economy, if you will. Such a term would not be a misnomer – the market's estimated size is 4bil yuan (RM2.4bil) already, encompassing not just dating apps but matchmakers, wedding services, singles-oriented fashion, jewellery, gifts, love toys, so on, according to industry insiders.
The market has grown so huge because its consumers such as Qin Xinyu, 28, a software professional with an internet-based firm in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, are willing to spend big money on singles-oriented products and services.
For instance, Qin recently thought nothing of splurging around 20,000 yuan (RM12,100) on a subscription to a wildly popular online dating app called Baihe.
Qin thinks he has made a smart investment that will produce commensurate returns. He expects all that money to make him less anxious, more confident, and finally find his soul mate, away from the prying eyes of his parents.
"I've been so bloody anxious in recent years," Qin said. "Not because of any job-related concerns, or due to things like inadequate salary, inflation, so on. I was anxious because my parents would set me up for dates with this girl or that they knew. And such dates –I went on eight such 'blind dates' in six months – usually tended to produce anxiety and stress.
"I felt overwhelmed because I knew every word I spoke, every gesture I made during the 'event' would become public and be evaluated. It was as though the two families, not just the two of us, went on a mass date. Besides, such dates weren't a scientific way of zeroing in on your soul mate."
So, Qin mustered enough courage to say no to dates set up by parents, friends, colleagues or acquaintances, and become the master of his own destiny.
From Qin's perspective, online dating apps are essential for young people born in the internet era. They anyway use a plethora of mobile apps to pay, eat and play, so they might as well use life-enhancing apps, he said.
"Dating apps make me feel free and comfortable. I can discover my own personality, and learn who might be compatible, and then actually go meet such a person on a mutually agreed-upon date," Qin said. Moreover, apps make dating fun because their design is such they make users feel as if they were playing an exciting game, he said.
For example, on Baihe, he takes part in quizzes. Players with similar levels of results earn greater chances of chatting with each other. The competitive spirit enhances the pleasure of dating, he said.
Such competition also marks the Singles Economy. In China, Baihe and its sister company Shiji Jiayuan face stiff competition from apps such as Zhenai. Together, the three apps boast market shares of more than 65%.
They became market leaders through innovative practices. They enable young singles to connect via live streaming, games, anonymous telephone chats and instant messaging widgets.
Small wonder, white-collar professionals in first- and second-tier cities make up over 90% of dating app consumers, according to a latest report by consultancy iResearch.
The report showed consumers aged between 26 and 34 made up 65% of the total; a majority 73% earn a decent monthly salary with the minimum being nearly 12,000 yuan (RM7,300).
Young urban consumers are willing to spend a big chunk of their monthly take-home on modern life-enhancing services. For instance, Chen Qi, 25, a fashion designer from Beijing, who pulls in an average of 18,000 yuan (RM10,900) every month, said she would be willing to part with one month's earnings every year for effective online dating services.
"Compared with material needs, finding a soul mate is much more important for me. It's something that traditional dates can't do," said Chen.
Dating apps rely on advanced technologies like big data and cloud computing to analyse behaviour of their millions of users. After crunching all that data, they recommend the most suitable date, which explains their high success rate.
No wonder, users such as Chen and Qin are happy to spend big money on dating apps. A media report and a report from iResearch showed that more than 80% of dating app users pay for their premium services, while only 55% of users of social networking services opt for their paid-for services.
In effect, firms operating online dating apps earn from membership subscriptions, paid-for one-on-one services (that entail professional "matchmakers" or experienced consultants who help recommend suitable dating partners) and fee for access to personal information (which enables users to send gifts to people they admire and check who have visited their online profiles).
"Even though I'm yet to find my soul mate, I think the service is worth paying for. Thanks to the help of the matchmakers, I'm now clearer about the kind of husband I want," said Chen, a veteran of four dates during which she met "four outstanding boys".
An industry report predicted that the total market revenue of online dating services will exceed 47bil yuan (RM28bil) by 2025.
Wen Bin, deputy president of Baihe Jiayuan Network Group, that owns Baihe and Jiayuan apps, said, "We are expanding from online to offline to create an industry chain." Well, an exclusive "industry chain" for singles and couples could well be what China needs.
Data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs showed that 1.85 million couples divorced in the first half of last year, higher than 1.63 million in the same period of 2016.
So, Baihe Jiayuan launched a "love hospital" to help troubled couples and the internet generation how to find the right partner and form lifelong, fruitful relationships. It also plans wedding-related services. This approach, Wen said, could boost the size of company's services by 10 times.
His optimism stems from the company's 2017 financial report. Revenue from consultancy services grew 204% year-on-year (the company didn't disclose share actual numbers). Wedding-related revenue accounted for nearly 10% of the total revenue of an estimated 67mil yuan (RM40mil), up from only 1% in 2016.
But, like in any other sunrise industry, challenges abound. Many young consumers remain indifferent or sceptical.
For instance, Zhou Li, 30, a university teacher from Hefei, Anhui province, has never used online dating apps. Hers is a "wait-and-watch" attitude.
"My concern is safety. Is it safe to use such dating apps? What if the user's personal information is compromised, or turns out to be false?"
To address the problem, Zhenai, an online dating service provider, shares its information with Xuexin, the only authority that can verify people’s educational background.
Similarly, Baihe cooperates with e-commerce behemoth Alibaba to offer biometric identification technologies to ensure the authenticity of users' personal information.
Wu Linguang, president of Baihe Jiayuan, said "dimension reduction" is the biggest uncertainty. "Dimension reduction means you never know who your competitors are. It's similar to the instant noodles market, where sales dropped dramatically due to the rise of online takeouts. That's something no one can anticipate."
The future of the online dating market remains uncertain as some of these young people may not want to marry at all or won't marry until they find that perfect soul mate. — China Daily/ANN