China

A Chinese ‘game companion’ platform’s phantom shutdown

Bixin said it would shutter its game companion business to keep regulators happy. It looks a lot like business as usual.

Woman gamer

China's game companions are becoming even more vulnerable as a result of regulatory scrutiny.

Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

In a clear response to regulatory scrutiny, Bixin, China's leading online marketplace for game companions, or peiwan, announced on Sept. 10 that it would "permanently shutter" its controversial peiwan business. But its internal announcement shared with Protocol seems to contradict its public declarations.

This past summer, Chinese authorities issued a slew of regulations aimed at addressing what Beijing considers toxic subcultures and practices that harm the country's minors. Bixin, an app developed by Shanghai Yitan Network Technology Company with 6 million registered game companions, also received its own share of regulatory pressure. Yitan was founded in 2014 and is backed by IDG Capital.

On Bixin, gamers pay for peiwan, companions who play alongside them online, supposedly to help them improve their skills. But in reality, many gamers — mostly men — are paying for entertainment. The game companions are overwhelmingly female gig workers, most of whom live in China's economic backwaters and face bleak employment prospects. This loosely regulated platform has subjected many female game companions to constant objectification, sexual harassment and exploitation, an earlier Protocol report found. It's a common belief that some gamers, often referred as "bosses," and game companions, often called "missies," also strike transactional sex deals through the platform.

In its Sept. 10 public announcement, which Bixin posted via its official WeChat account, Bixin said it was determined to "fully realize [its] social responsibilities, resolutely combat black and gray industries like soft pornography, [and] strengthen the protection of minors." The app has been removed from app stores, and new user registrations have been suspended.

By contrast, the wording of a Bixin announcement shared with its users, a copy of which has been obtained and reviewed by Protocol, said nothing about shuttering the peiwan business. Instead, Bixin vaguely said it was "adjusting parts of our business" to meet regulatory requirements and listed 10 deprecated functions, including graphic design and illustration, which have no bearing on the core peiwan business. As of Thursday, this correspondent was still able to use the app to hire a "companion." Bixin didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.

The impact of Bixin's move is nevertheless significant. It now benefits from a public perception that it no longer provides peiwan services, and it's true that new users have no access to Bixin. Those full-time female game companions who fully relied on Bixin to find new clients and have no alternative income sources will face the most significant toll given the ban on new user registrations, Mengyang Zhao, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies China's online game service industry, told Protocol.

And the vast majority of part-time game companions may soon find themselves in an even murkier situation because the game companion sector now risks turning further underground. "The companion sector will always exist because the demand for social gaming is huge," Zhao said. "When a major platform is under official scrutiny, the sector will become more decentralized rather than disappear altogether."

Much of the flirting, negotiation and transaction between gamers and game companions already occurred outside of Bixin prior to the latest changes. Once the two parties are connected on WeChat, they can negotiate new terms and prices there. This way, Bixin won't eat 20% of their income. But this also means they are out in the Wild West on their own, without a platform to report to when they are harassed by clients .

And with Bixin the platform and game companion the sector now being a regulatory target, "if they all went underground, labor protection would be trickier," Zhao said.

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