SOME GUYS HAVE all the luck when it comes to dating, and Shanghai IT worker Wang Liang is definitely one of them. He's having his cake and eating it tonight. 'There's no sweeter deal than having someone pay you to go out with them on Valentine's Day,' says the 25-year-old. 'I've really got nothing to lose. There are many lonely people in Shanghai like me. Why not meet someone while getting paid?' Wang put the word about that he was fancy free, in a classified 'date for sale' ad costing 200 yuan a day on the popular www.kijiji . com.cn website. 'All I have to do is list my price, brief description, and contact information on some popular websites,' Wang says. He even specified that he was only available this evening, as he has to work today, but the moonlighting techie is formatted for all software tonight. 'I couldn't care less about the activity. Usually it's a dinner, movie, or shopping.' But Wang says he won't go out with just anyone. 'I prefer to see a picture of my client before making a commitment,' Wang says. 'I prefer my customer to be good looking.' And even then the 'lucky lady' must set down her particulars, and sign a standard 'rent-a-date' contract, which clarifies any fine print about getting down to business on Valentine's Day. The agreement is an important formality in a 'date for sale' trend that's catching on in Beijing and Shanghai, say fellow escorts. 'There has to be upfront agreements, when money's involved,' says Zhu Mingyu, a 'boyfriend-for-rent' club member in Beijing. He advertises on www.baidu.cn , which runs free postings to registered members of its 'online community'. 'Whether we go to the movies, for dinner or go shopping, we have to make sure who's paying what, and how much,' Zhu says. But there was some confusion. The 26-year-old salesman didn't specify that he only caters to females. 'In the first week after posting the ad, all the phone calls I got were from guys,' he says, smiling. The internet dating scene is well-established on the mainland. In 2003, Fudan University student Gong Haiyan took her Shanghai college dating website national in response to growing demand. Now the Century website has more than a million members. Sites such as www.kijiji.com.cn also provide dedicated forums, surveys, and chatrooms for prospective Valentines. And posts headlined 'looking for dates, share costs, having a good time' are common on popular Chinese websites such as www.sina.com and www.tianya.cn . The sites claim an avid readership, mainly under 30; www.163.com claims its dating categories drew 4,000 replies over a fortnight. Wang explains why young people on the mainland are clicking for romance. 'People are becoming more lonely in our increasingly large society,' he says. The internet's also changing attitudes to love. According to a rent-a-date survey by the www.tianya.cn website, 29 per cent of respondents said they would rent a date because it's morally justifiable that no one wants to be alone during holidays. Also, 28 per cent said they would 'consider renting a date when the situation allows'. These internet dating rituals might be a departure from traditional attitudes to 'love', but they're lending Cupid a helping hand this week. When the Shanghai website bbs51.com launched a specially designed discussion forum entitled 'Looking for Boyfriends on Valentine's Day', 290 women submitted posts for companions today, and they were inundated with replies or 'resumes'. Gong Qing was one of the 'sheep among the wolves' on the Valentine postings, and she's not short of suitors. The petite, slim 29-year-old administrative assistant from Shanghai says she's made contact with 33 men who are willing to accompany her to any event on Valentine's Day. 'I work in a small office for 50 hours a week, without much time for socialising,' Gong says. 'The website allows people to socialise in a non-traditional way, or for people who just don't have the time.' She has yet to decide whom she'll take on her date. 'I'll just see what happens and I'll go with the flow,' Gong says. 'I'll still have to work [on Valentine's Day], maybe even work overtime.' She needn't rush, for love can linger online, too. 'Wang Hui', the administrator of the Shanghai website bbs.51.com, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says three women who sought companionship for last year's Valentine's Day, still receive replies from men, and their threads have become the three most-viewed in the site's history. Peer and family pressures are the primary reasons for seeking 'dates for sale' online. 'No one wants to be alone, especially with Valentine's Day and Lunar New Year coming up,' says a 28-year-old woman who prefers to remain anonymous. 'I actually plan to hire one good-looking guy to take home to my parents, so they can get off my back about me not dating, and having no marriage prospects at my age.' A 27-year-old successful female entrepreneur from Wuhan is also reported in the Hubei-based Chu Tian Metropolitan News to have posted a 5,000 yuan rent-a-date advertisement, so she can take a man home to see her parents this Lunar New Year. She's also reported on www.sohu.com to have received a dozen responses, and interviewed six candidates - three master degree holders, two college graduates and one college professor - but has yet to make up her mind, because 'the feeling is still not right'. Shanghai and Guangzhou-based sociologist Li Jihong attributes the cyber-dating trend to China's one-child policy. 'Younger generations don't have siblings, and have inadvertently forfeited a crucial step of learning how to bond with society and other people,' says the Zhongshan University graduate. 'This rent-a-date shenanigans is the result of a severe lack of social skills.' Li's explanation might seem harsh, but it isn't unfounded. According to Ding Min, the administrator of the Shanghai-based http://bbs.fudan.edu.cn/ college network website, rent-a-date, or even rent-a-friend, is nothing new. 'Many students have done that during college, such as seeking a fitness partner for jogging; study mates, shopping mates, and so on,' he says. 'To involve money is another thing, though.' The one-child policy has also forced the Little Emperor generation to compete harder for dates. Chinese families' preference for boys over girls has created a massive demographic imbalance. 'There are at least a million people who are single between the ages of 30 and 50 in Beijing and Shanghai combined,' says Shanghai University sociologist, Professor Gu Jun, '[and] males outnumber females by a ratio of at least six to four. It is not difficult to see why males have a hard time finding dates.' So, to make matches easier, websites such as www.163.net feature 'girlfriends for rent on Valentine's Day' on its Love for Your Life pages. The professor says the 'rent-a-date' trend is merely a rebellion against frustration, and past failures in romance. 'If they're actually selling themselves to make money, as a commodity, why would they care who their employers are?' Gu asks. 'It's nothing but a form of desperado, frustration, and surrender because the demographic imbalance is something they cannot control, yet affects their love lives in a negative way.' Although profit's only a partial concern for some 'rent-a-date' seekers, marriage agency firms in Shanghai and Beijing have already hopped on the Valentine's bandwagon. Many firms have used their own administrative employees as potential date candidates, and sometimes even prostitution is involved for quick profits, an industry source claims. The 'rent-a-date' system faces harsh criticism on moral grounds. 'It is a slippery slope,' says Fudan Professor Yu Hai. 'Today, you encourage selling companionship over the internet. So, are you going to legalise prostitution and escort services next year?' Others have an open mind. 'Rent-a-date destroys the meaning of romance,' says Shanghai Weekly editor Xiao Bai. 'But everyone is entitled to their own opinions of what a relationship is supposed to be. Maybe they're just desperate.' But Li says 'self-esteem and vanity have driven people to blind conformity' in using rent-a-date sites. 'Most people want a date because everyone else is having a date on Valentine's,' he says. 'Apparently, they care more about letting other people feel happy for them than letting themselves feel happy.' Meanwhile, Gong is confident she'll find a mate through rent-a-date. 'I believe the internet will bring me my Mr Right,' she says. 'I have faith in it.'