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The pink yuan: how Chinese business is embracing the LGBT market

Remember when the term “pink dollar” was first coined? It was one of the buzz phrases of the 1990s: a time of much change with regard to views on homosexuality in many countries. Lesbians were snogging on TV for the first time in Britain. In 1994, Australia passed a human rights act that finally scrapped the banning of gay sex. Meanwhile, there was a tornado of media coverage around the world of this “pink dollar”, as companies realised that a more open LGBT demographic was something they could lucratively market to.
Twenty years later, China is finally sparking its own pink dollar moment. Last month China Daily, the state-run newspaper, ran a feature with the headline, “‘Pink Economy’ set to soar as companies target LGBT community”. It claimed the country’s estimated 70 million LGBT people represent a market worth $300bn per year. In comparison, according to Witeck Communications, a company specialising in analysing the LGBT market, the US equivalent is worth $790bn a year.
Homosexuality was illegal in China until 1997 but only declassified as a mental health disorder in 2001. Now, due to increasingly liberal attitudes among young urban Chinese, many big firms in the country market themselves as LGBT-friendly. On the other end of the business scale, an increasing amount of startups are tailoring their products and services for LGBT people to capitalise on this change.
Zhu Qiming, chief executive of mobile game developer Star-G Technologies, which targets gay gamers, told China Daily: “With rising social tolerance, people in the LGBT community have begun to demonstrate their identity and meet other members of the community through a range of social activities… I see strong demand going unfulfilled, and that provides us with ‘pink’ opportunities.”
Last October Geng Le, chief executive of the vastly successful Chinese gay dating app Blued, helped organise the first Pink Economy Innovation and Entrepreneurship Contest, which awarded investment to new companies targeting the LGBT market. “There’s a new concept of consumption upgrade offering more tailored services,” he said. “For example, an LGBT person might use a normal travel company, but if there’s an agency designing LGBT-friendly itineraries the experience is better. Companies have realised there’s a gap.”
Meanwhile global firms such as Starbucks, Alibaba, Nike and Adidas have got in on the act of marketing themselves as LGBT-friendly in China. Last year Alibaba-owned shopping giant Taobao organised trips for ten gay Chinese couples to get married in Los Angeles – gay marriage is not legal in China. “This is the other style of business expansion we’re seeing,” said Geng. “They’re just showing their attitude, really.”
Chinese state media regularly runs articles in praise of such attitudes, but the progressive views lauded in newspaper columns are not always reflected in people’s working lives. “A lot of Chinese companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu put LGBT-friendly messages on social media,” said Steven Bielinski, organiser of China’s first LGBT job fairs, which began in 2015 in Beijing. “But they haven’t necessarily done much when it comes to internal company LGBT policies.”
There are no employment laws in China that specifically outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and court cases based on such discrimination are rare. Even in tier one cities, in which increasingly progressive attitudes abound, the vast majority of LGBT people do not talk to work colleagues about their sexuality. This year’s LGBT Community Report, which polled 30,000 LGBT people across China, found that only 5% of participants said they told any family, friends or colleagues about their sexuality.
Why is this supposed period of big market change not being reflected on a similar scale in workplaces? Of the five lesbian, gay or transgender people interviewed for this article about their work experiences, four said they never talked openly about their sexuality or gender identification at work. They said this was not a huge source of pain for them, just a practicality.
“I don’t want to risk it,” said Fei, a Beijing-based sales rep for a US-owned IT company. “In my job there’s fierce competition, I don’t want people using my sexuality [against me]. I’m dealing with government clients; I don’t want them to have weird feelings.
Fei’s company has rigid policies against sexuality-based discrimination. “I do feel protected by them,” he said. “And I feel like things are changing in China. When I was at university in 2001 finding a date was difficult because people didn’t feel there could be a future. I had a relationship that ended because the guy had to have a sham marriage to a woman. It’s still a straight man’s world, but the young generation is getting more international.”
Acceptance of homosexuality varies across different industries everywhere, but in China the differences are more pronounced. Gang, a lawyer based in Shanghai, considered the country’s most gay-friendly city, said: “Lawyers are always ahead of the times. The cases we deal with often involve emerging issues in society, so my colleagues wouldn’t be interested in something so outdated [as homophobia].” Despite this view, Gang is not openly gay at work. “I don’t want to bring my personal life up there,” he said.
Many people who work in less modern Chinese firms have to face more worrying attitudes. Yuan, a lesbian woman, used to do admin for a firm that sold tea. “Once an industry is labeled, people in that industry are expected to fit a mould,” she said. “I suppressed myself for years.”
Yuan pretended she was married to a man to help hide her sexuality, and encountered colleagues obsessed with the traditional heterosexual Chinese family unit. “They would say, ‘You’re like a boy’ or, ‘I can’t imagine what your husband must be like’,” she said. “One colleague said she planned to send her kid to the UK rather than the US because ‘there are so many gays in the US’. Career development was a concern – my bosses thought being LGBT was abnormal.”
Accounts such as Yuan’s make for pessimistic reading, but Geng thinks big business LGBT support will gradually help shift the boulder. “There have been arguments about whether companies use LGBT marketing as a gimmick,” he said. “But whatever their purposes are, they’re making LGBT people more visible. It’s a good thing, and the impact of the economy as the force of social progress is beyond our imagination.”
Bielinski added: “There are perhaps hundreds of Chinese companies aware of LGBT as a customer group. They’re still in the learning phase, but they will be thinking about what this means for their internal human resources policies.”
Don’t call it a society-shoving revolution quite yet, then. But China’s pink economy is undoubtedly becoming red hot.