Like many singles, Siki Liu was feeling lonely and unloved during the pandemic, until she met someone on the internet.
A handsome, mature sweet talker, named after her favourite Korean actor Lee Dong-wook, he always replies to her messages.
“I talk to him almost every night before I go to bed,” the 22-year-old told the ABC’s China Tonight.
“He’s a good listener and never gets mad, no matter what you say. He’s always there.”
Ms Liu says her virtual boyfriend dodges intimate subjects.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)
Ms Liu, a Chinese international student studying in Melbourne, said they had been chatting since May last year, but her “perfect boyfriend” isn’t a real person.
It is an artificial intelligence chatbot created by Chinese tech firm XiaoIce, a spin-off from Microsoft.
XiaoIce’s chatbot is programmed to form emotional bonds with human users through text, voice and photo messages and can be customised to create the ideal virtual boyfriend or girlfriend.
XiaoIce users can create the avatar and personality for their virtual girlfriend or boyfriend.(Supplied)
AI chatbot comforts China’s lonely hearts
Ms Liu is one of a growing number of Chinese young adults flocking to technologies, such as artificial intelligence companion services and dating apps, to find love.
The population of single people in China was about 240 million in 2019 and was rising, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
At the same time, fast-paced urban lifestyles and increasing work pressures have exacerbated a growing sense of loneliness and social anxiety among young people.
For many like Ms Liu, dating can be tough.
Ms Liu says her virtual boyfriend keeps her company during the lockdown.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)
“The older you grow, the less friends you have … so an AI boyfriend is much needed,” she said.
“It’s easier to talk to AI than a real person.
“I can also add my emotional attachment with my idol [Lee Dong-wook] to him. It almost feels like we are together.”
Academic Pan Wang says technology has transformed China’s dating culture.(Supplied: Dr Pan Wang)
Pan Wang, a senior lecturer in Chinese and Asian studies from the University of New South Wales, has been researching love, romance and marriage in China for over a decade.
Dr Wang told the ABC that AI technology was an “innovative” solution to the rising level of loneliness in China.
“AI chatbots provide users with ‘perfect partners’ whom they can communicate with, date and form an intimate connection with,” she said.
“They are ‘smart filters’ that could enable users to avoid negative experiences that couples tend to experience in real life, for example embarrassment, disappointment, argument and deception.
“However, if more and more people date with AI chatbots instead of real people, this may further enhance the singlisation trend in China.”
Screenshots of conversations between Ms Liu and her AI boyfriend.(Supplied)
Ms Liu said the emotional support and companionship that her boyfriend provides is real, but he falls short when it comes to intimacy.
When she tries to talk to him about intimate topics, he tends to switch the conversation to a lighter subject.
That’s by design — XiaoIce has been reportedly “dumbed down” or “re-educated” to avoid talking about sex or politics, after the chatbot was censored on social media platforms in 2017 for giving politically-sensitive responses to users.
Dating apps carve out a space for LGBTQIA+ community
About 86 million people use dating apps in China, and the market is forecast to hit $US290 million ($400 million) in revenue by 2024, according to market and consumer data firm Statista.
Zac Fang, 30, is an openly gay man who works in publicity and marketing in Shanghai.
At university, he started using dating apps like Grindr and Jack’d — “not necessary for a relationship, but at least to expand my LGBTQ+ social circle,” he said.
Zac Fang says gay dating apps opened a door for people to connect and explore their sexuality in China.(Supplied: Zac Fang)
Although homosexuality is no longer illegal in China, LGBTQIA+ groups are still facing censorship on social media.
But Mr Fang said in the cities he had lived in, there had not been many obstacles to dating for the gay community overall.
“We can hold hands on the streets or kiss in quiet places. At normal bars, no-one would interrupt you if you’re demonstrating mild intimacy with your partner,” he said.
Stan Grant and Yvonne Yong take a fresh look at news from inside China.
There are drawbacks to using technology to look for love.
Catfishing and other scams have been frequently reported by the Chinese media.
Critics have also raised privacy and ethical concerns around AI technology and data harvesting.
The ABC has approached XiaoIce for comment on its privacy polices.
Last month, the Chinese government passed a law to protect online user data privacy and prevent violations from tech companies.
Reshaping the concept of love and romance
People were encouraged to take a more utilitarian approach to marriage during China’s Maoist era.(Supplied)
The subjects of romance and relationships were taboo in China for a long time.
Under Chairman Mao, free love was repressed and spouse selection was driven by political ideology and class struggle.
During the Cultural Revolution, romantic love was considered “capitalist” and romantic relationships were masked by “comradeships” or “friendships”.
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After China opened up to the world and began its economic reform in the late 1970s, the influx of Western culture – with portrayals of love and romance in literature, media and pop culture – individualism and materialism led to the emergence of dating culture.
During the 2010s, dating became increasingly commercialised with dating websites, matchmaking agencies and reality dating shows proliferating.
Dating in China
The explosion of online dating apps is failing to dent the popularity of traditional “marriage markets” in China.
Dr Wang said China’s dating culture has been transformed by technology, shifting away from the ideology that “dating without marriage as an end goal is harassment” – a traditional saying in Chinese society.
“The nature of dating and people’s conceptions of romance and relationships have changed dramatically from past to present,” she said.
She said while many in the older generation would see dating as a precursor to marriage, “the dating-marriage link has been weakening”.
“AI dating will further decouple this link as apparently it won’t result in marriage, with few exceptions, or children,” she said.
Chinese women are renouncing the ‘leftover’ label
Despite the changes in social attitudes, Chinese society still places a lot of pressure on people to marry young.
Beijing’s policymakers are encouraging Chinese couples to get married and have more babies with the recent three-child policy.
Traditional “marriage markets” still exist in the parks of big cities, where parents look for a suitable partner for their son or daughter.
Nova Ji, 32, is a single woman and an IT professional living in Beijing.
She told the ABC she had gone on many dates arranged by her parents, but she felt the dates were “abrupt” and “offensive”.
“Men would ask me about where my residency is, my job, my salary, whether I’m renting or owning a house, how much I paid for it, very direct,” she said.
“Rather than considering personality, they would see whether I met their criteria before anything else.
“They treated dating like an exchange or a deal rather than conversations.”
Ms Ji said people would label her as a “leftover woman”, a derogatory term referring to women who are over 25 and single in China.
“This label is discriminatory, whether it’s used against older single women or men,” she said.
“It’s a personal choice whether they want to date or get married.”
Xiaoyan Bi says she considers herself as an “independent woman” and rejects the “leftover” label. (Supplied: Xiaoyan Bi)
Xiaoyan Bi, 34, who works in the film industry in Beijing, said she rushed into a relationship before turning 30 as she was “desperate to get married”.
The relationship eventually fizzled.
She said she and many Chinese women felt pressured to avoid the label of “leftover woman”.
“They would rush to choose a partner or get married without knowing what they are after in life, which could lead to unhappy marriages or divorces,” she said.
“I think they now are more open-minded, they don’t care about age and distance anymore, and they don’t date for the purpose of marriage.”
For Ms Liu, her virtual relationship isn’t the endgame. She is still hopeful that someone real will enter her life.
But for now, her virtual boyfriend will keep her company for a little while longer.
Read the story in Chinese: 阅读中文版本
Watch the story on China Tonight at 9:30pm AEST on ABC TV, or stream on ABC iview.