The run-up to this year's Lunar New Year holiday in China has seen a surge in demand for rented girlfriends or boyfriends, as single millennials look to pass themselves off to their families as being in a relationship when they go home for the annual celebrations.
In China, where producing offspring is seen as an important filial obligation, pressure to get married and give birth can be overwhelming, so much so that people seek this temporary – and pricey – solution to appeasing their parents and other relatives.
The cost of renting a pretend partner typically ranges from 500 yuan to 2,000 yuan a night, plus expenses. However, prices have soared ahead of the Spring Festival holiday, during which young urban dwellers return home for family reunions. One desperate bachelor is offering to pay up to 6,000 yuan on Chinese social media platform Baidu to a woman who'll have a meal and spend a night with his family.
On one Chinese website dedicated to boyfriend and girlfriend rental, most of the customers are bachelors looking for a decent, polished woman to play their girlfriend. Many customers, and fake partners for hire, specify that they only require or provide "green" services – meaning no sexual services are involved, not even kissing.
"I am renting out my time only, not my body," says a 27-year-old woman from Shenzhen on the website.
One man claims to be a professional actor and says he can not only pretend to be a temporary boyfriend or lover, but provide emotional support and even enter a fake marriage. Another one offering his services says he can provide cover to a client for an extended period of time by making regular phone calls to their parents – for an extra charge, of course.
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Users of this website are required to register, meaning they must state their occupation, marital status, educational background, weight and height. It is also mandatory they register their body shape (choosing from descriptions such as sexy, curvy, petite, standard and muscular).
Since most such websites function merely as chat rooms to connect two parties, rather than as middlemen, there is no way of ensuring the quality of the services a fake partner provides if hired, or that they match their profile pictures – or even whether they will show up.
However, some businesses have adopted a more sophisticated and lucrative model. One such website, Zuren77, uses the tagline "rent a person for one dollar" and calls itself a crowdfunding platform. Its interface looks very similar to that of online shopping apps; there are location filters to narrow down your search, recommendations of popular products and a shopping cart to which to add your desired items – in this case, girls.
Unlike most websites in this business, users do not have to negotiate a fake-partner hire individually. Instead, after paying a subscription fee, they can bid for the girls they desire, starting from 1 yuan an hour. Once bidding for a woman's services reaches 188 yuan an hour, the man to benefit from them is selected randomly from among the bidders.
While some commentators have aired ethical and moral concerns about the practice of renting a fake partner, an academic says its existence points to the disparity between the attitudes of older and younger Chinese people towards marriage and family.
"The older generation tends to put marriage before everything, and [to them] even a bad marriage may be better than staying single," says Yue Qian, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. "But the younger generation is exposed to Western values to a greater degree ... and think marital status is not the only measure of happiness and success."