Dating app Grindr may be first major casualty of China’s pre-Olympics campaign to tame ‘bad behavior’

February 2, 2022, 6:45 PM UTC

Chinese authorities have embarked on a campaign to clean up the internet ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, and during the current weeklong Spring Festival—a celebration of the Chinese New Year, the country’s biggest holiday.

The first potential app casualty of China’s pre-Olympics and Spring Festival internet purge? Gay dating service Grindr. 

Early last week, China’s cyberspace watchdog announced the start of new efforts to regulate internet content—to root out everything from fraud and cyber threats to pornography, online rumors, and celebrity and money worship—in order to “rectify the chaos of bad behavior on the internet…and create a healthy and peaceful network…for netizens, especially minors.”

Then last Thursday, dating service Grindr disappeared from several app stores in China, including Apple’s, and domestic platforms like Tencent and Huawei. Grindr’s operator cited challenges in staying compliant with China’s Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) enacted in November, according to Bloomberg—a set of stringent new rules for companies storing Chinese personal data.

Grindr’s decision to pull the app from China’s app stores was voluntary and “made last year, and has been in process for the last few months… [due to the] changing regulatory environment,” similar to LinkedIn’s decision to exit the Chinese market, a company spokesperson told Fortune. Microsoft shut down LinkedIn in China last October, noting that operating a localized Chinese version on LinkedIn means “adherence to [government] requirements on Internet platforms.” Grindr has an office in Taiwan. The company will “regularly reevaluate” its decision and strategy on China “as the regulatory environment evolves,” the spokesperson said.

China has long banned Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp, among other services. China’s homegrown social platforms like blogging platform Weibo and Tencent’s WeChat—the country’s most popular messaging and social media app with over 1 billion monthly users—are subject to surveillance and censorship.

Chinese authorities’ oversight of people’s behavior, both online and offline, has increased in the lead-up to the Olympics, which start Feb. 4. During important events like the Olympics, when the world is paying close attention to China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is extra vigilant in monitoring what social content is circulating and what the media is saying. Beijing “invariably [tries] to curb free expression even further than usual” during such events, says Dexter Roberts, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative and author of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism.

Ahead of the Winter Games, authorities have already locked up potential activists and shut down the social media accounts of well-known critics—in addition to surveilling athletes and other Olympic participants, says Karman Lucero, a fellow at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center focused on Chinese technology law and policy. The state-run mobile app that participating athletes in Beijing will be required to download—which serves as a health monitoring tool to upload vaccination records and log COVID-19 symptoms—has also been criticized over security, privacy, and censorship concerns.

Yet Grindr’s disappearance in China may be also linked to Beijing’s ongoing push to encourage “traditional” family values and discourage “effeminate” and “sissy” men as the country grapples with a demographic crisis. China’s population growth rate fell to a six-decade low in 2021. Same-sex marriage remains illegal in China, and “gay-themed content and products” on social media have been regularly targeted for censorship, thereby putting Grindr in Beijing’s crosshairs, says Roberts. “Anything that doesn’t…fall within traditional gender roles is increasingly frowned upon,” he says.

At best, LGBT groups are seen as “inconvenient, if not outright dangerous” to society and stability in China, given they don’t conform to Party ideology and goals, says Lucero. Last July, Tencent-operated WeChat deleted dozens of university student–run LGBT accounts, igniting concerns that authorities were ramping up its censorship of gay content online. In 2020, Shanghai Pride shut down after 12 years owing to increasing pressure from authorities.

China’s pre-Olympics campaign to step up policing of the internet and citizen behavior is part of a broader censorship push that will likely endure even after the Games end, experts say.

In the past five years, China’s internet freedoms have regressed, even though the country seemed to be on an opposite trajectory throughout the early 2010s, says Zak Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Beijing-based consultancy Young China Group and author of Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World. As a result, netizens, especially young people, are more cautious now in what they post online. “We hear more and more of young people’s self-censorship [online], and relating how their parents immediately [tell] them to [delete] a post if it toes the line. [These] small behavior changes can shift…national conversation and perception,” he says.

The government’s crackdown on internet content, apps, and free speech could grow much larger, Lucero says, with anything that’s perceived as too popular, too foreign, or if the party deems it threatening, to likely face growing censorship.

Update, Feb. 3, 2022: This story was updated from the original with a comment from Grindr.

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