When Eric Zhou noticed that many of his female colleagues at his former employer in Beijing were struggling to find love, his solution was not to set them up with his friends, as people usually do. Instead, he started a dating app. “Online dating is the future in China,” said Zhou, founder of Slow and former head of global operations at ByteDance’s viral short video-sharing app TikTok. “The friend circles of young people sharply narrow once they move from college to work. The increase in work pressure and rising popularity of online entertainment are squeezing their social lives.” Over the past decade, the population of single people has been on the rise in China. Between 2013 and 2018, the number of adults without a partner rose from 170 million to 240 million, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. By 2022, the number of people living alone is forecast to reach 92 million. While Beijing’s policymakers are urgently exploring ways to stem falling marriage and birth rates , entrepreneurs like Zhou sense a growing business opportunity. Zhou’s app Slow officially launched at the end of 2020, around a year after its beta version first came out. Unlike Tinder and other similar apps, which allow users to swipe through many more profiles, Slow only lets each user view 48 profiles a day. And instead of having users swipe right for “yes” or left for “no”, Slow asks them to “like” a particular feature on each profile, whether it is a photo or a description of a recent trip that the profile owner wrote about. They can also choose to pass on a profile by tapping on a cross button. Two users become matches when they “like” features on each other’s profiles. They can then interact via a news feed. All the matches will count towards a user’s daily limit of 48 profiles, which means that the more matches one has, the fewer new profiles one will see each day, according to Zhou. The last feature is designed to encourage users to connect with their matches. “From a user’s perspective, you always tend to swipe through new profiles because it takes less energy than talking to matches, which means you may never interact with 80 per cent or 90 per cent of matches. I see that as inefficient,” Zhou said. Still, anyone who feels the need to look at more than four dozen profiles a day can pay 88 yuan (US$13.5) to increase their daily allowance and enjoy other add-on features, such as changing the location on their profile and viewing the activity reports of matches. The app currently has around 100,000 users, according to Slow. Demand for a new breed of dating apps like Slow has been bolstered by the Covid-19 pandemic , which has led to young people longing for more meaningful connections in their daily lives, said Heng Hui, a researcher at Shanghai-based market research agency Youthology. These apps allow users to “pay more attention to other people’s life stories and [find out] how they became who they are,” she said. HIMMR, which stands for “How I Met Mr Right”, is another online dating start-up hoping to appeal to China’s young singles. Started by two friends who graduated from Tsinghua University in 2015 and go by the pseudonyms Lele and Yueliang, the platform’s identity is intrinsically linked to the founders’ elite education background. “It started as a WeChat account where the co-founders initially pulled friends from their circles at Tsinghua, Peking, Fudan and Jiaotong,” said Wang Xinyi, HIMMR’s vice-president of public relations and editor of user profiles, referring to several top Chinese universities. HIMMR said it carefully verifies the profiles of its users. To become featured on HIMMR’s WeChat account, a user needs to submit their college graduation certificate, several high-quality photos, a self-description and lengthy reviews from family and friends. Now available as a WeChat mini program and a web app, HIMMR has since attracted 80,000 active users and organised over 300 physical events in eight cities. The pandemic lockdown in China in early 2020 boosted the platform’s business, according to Wang. During that period, HIMMR launched a series of online events following a format similar to the immensely popular Chinese matchmaking show If You Are The One , arranging for participants to meet in groups at a ratio of three men to seven women. The platform saw a surge in users who wanted to be featured on its WeChat account, Wang said. While most of these dating apps target users looking for straight relationships, some platforms have also designed paid features that cater to China’s sexual minorities. Matchmakers have been busier than ever during the coronavirus pandemic Rob, a 32-year-old data analyst who identifies as gay and requested to use a pseudonym for privacy reasons, prefers the international gay dating app Grindr for its more diverse user pool, but he also pays an annual fee of over 300 yuan (US$46) to use the Chinese app Fanka, which hides the profiles of paid users from their acquaintances. “It is a necessity for people like us at home or in the office,” Rob said. “If colleagues or neighbours are also on the app, it’d be awkward to say the least. Or worse, I could be forced to come out of the closet.” Rob spoke from experience: after one of Rob’s acquaintances rejected a colleague’s romantic advance on Grindr, the co-worker threatened to reveal his sexual orientation to the company. Although China decriminalised homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from a list of mental illnesses in 2001, it is still described as a disorder in some textbooks . Same-sex unions remain illegal and homosexuality is largely a taboo despite being more accepted by the younger generation. Fanka, HIMMR and Slow are just a few examples of dating apps offering features that account for China’s unique social context. While Western apps – like Tinder , Bumble and Grindr – and their Chinese clones dominated the country’s online dating scene a few years ago, Chinese millennials and Gen Z are now gravitating towards domestic apps that provide niche cultural solutions. Focusing on user needs helps start-ups appeal to Chinese consumers, but sometimes their solutions can backfire. HIMMR was put in the spotlight late last year when co-founder Yueliang debated sociology professor Shen Yifei in a podcast. Shen argued that even though individuals may have preferences over certain educational backgrounds, a socially responsible platform should not shun romance seekers without prestigious college degrees. HIMMR’s Wang said it was not the team’s intention to be elitist. As for Slow, its emphasis on unhurried interactions can be a double-edged sword. Although the feature helps the app set itself apart from rivals, “slow interaction isn’t sexy enough,” said founder Zhou, “so we’re likely to have difficulty in growth.” Founder of Chinese gay dating app Blued optimistic about overseas expansion Both Slow and HIMMR are relatively nascent compared with their more established peers, some of which already boast hundreds of millions of daily active users and several rounds of investment. Momo and Blued, which are among the first generation of Chinese dating apps, are both listed on the Nasdaq and valued at over US$2 billion and nearly US$3.5 billion respectively. Soul, an artificial intelligence-driven dating and social app, has confidentially filed for an initial public offering in the US, according to Bloomberg . The five-year-old company is reportedly valued at over US$1 billion. What remains a challenge to the whole market is the ever-changing needs of users. Xia Qun, a 22-year-old employee at Ping An Bank’s Kunming branch who used to be on Soul and another dating and social app Jimu , said she no longer uses them after she started dating a man she first met at school. “You might be able to learn more about strangers based on their talents and interests on these apps … but essentially most people are just eager to jump into a relationship [no matter what], which beats the purpose,” she said.