Celebrity Streamer Throws Shanghai ‘Therapy Dog’ Course a Bone


SHANGHAI — Dozens of dogs were on their best behavior Sunday afternoon as they lined up before a judge to find out if they would qualify for the designation of “therapy dog,” a relatively new concept in China.

Most of the gaggle of onlookers were pet parents who had enrolled their fur babies in a rigorous training class in hopes that the animals would be approved to visit children with autism, people at nursing homes, or anyone else who might be in need of emotional support.

First, the judge lets each dog sniff her. Then she checks their teeth, gives their fur a tug, and prods sensitive body parts — including tails, bellies, and legs — to observe their reactions. The dogs must also respond well to strange or sudden noises, as well as wheelchairs and other animals. The goal is for the animals to be calm in any environment and friendly with people of all ages.

Children play with dogs during the animal-assisted therapy training course at the Bund Finance Center in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center

Children play with dogs during the animal-assisted therapy event at the Bund Finance Center in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center

After several elimination rounds, only a small number of dogs have qualified for the final stage of training. According to Wu Qi, the founder of Paw for Heal, one of China’s only animal-assisted therapy (AAT) programs, the program’s overall pass rate is just 20%.

“AAT dogs must be stable, easygoing, and friendly with humans,” Wu told Sixth Tone. “They should be receptive to training and must not attack people even if they’re treated improperly.”

Wu, who is sometimes described as China’s “dog whisperer,” said it usually takes six to 10 months before a dog can become a qualified AAT animal, at an average cost of nearly 100,000 yuan ($14,000) per animal. Wu takes care of the training, while the clients provide the animals: Then at the end of the course, the owners volunteer at elder care homes, centers for people with mental challenges, and other places where their newly trained dogs can be sources of comfort to others.

Wu Qi (front), the founder of Paw for Heal, poses for a group photo at the end of an animal-assisted therapy training course at the Bund Finance Center in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center

Wu Qi (front), the founder of Paw for Heal, poses for a group photo at the end of an animal-assisted therapy event at the Bund Finance Center in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center

Therapy dogs are widely used in many countries with established training, evaluation, and certification systems. With Chinese organizations like Wu’s only tapping into this market in the last decade, however, domestic demand far outpaces supply. There are currently more than 10 million people with autism in China, while over 9 million people in the country are affected by Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.

To reach the level of therapy dog training internationally, Wu said China needs to create a more friendly environment for the animals. He’s also doing what he can to help bridge the gap, collaborating with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to introduce scientific research on AAT to his program in China.

“Through learning from the European team, China may shorten the time to catch up with Western countries in this field by several decades,” he said.

On Sunday afternoon, Wu and five dog owners walked their animals through the shopping mall at the Bund Finance Center, a commercial complex where pet-friendly events are regularly held, with permission from management. “That was a sensational moment for us because dogs aren’t (typically) allowed in the mall,” he said. “But therapy dogs need training in such places to improve their social engagement.”

Participants in the Paw for Heal program escort their dogs through the shopping mall of the Bund Finance Center in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center

Participants in the Paw for Heal program escort their dogs through the shopping mall of the Bund Finance Center in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center

Since its launch in 2012, Paw for Heal has certified around 80 therapy dogs volunteering at some 30 nursing homes and autism organizations nationwide. Founded in the eastern city of Nanjing, the program has now expanded to around 10 cities across the country.

Wu announced Sunday that his program is aiming to train over 100 therapy dogs this year in Shanghai alone. While this seems a lofty goal given past performance, there’s a reason he’s so confident. Earlier this year, Li Jiaqi — arguably China’s most famous commercial livestreamer — sent his own dogs to Wu’s training center in Shanghai, and broadcast parts of the training on microblogging platform Weibo beginning in April. In the weeks since, over 1,000 dog owners have signed up for Paw for Heal — more animals than the organization normally receives in a year, according to Wu.

She (my dog) makes me happy every day, and I think she can bring happiness to other people in need as well.

Wang Rui brought her dog to Sunday’s mall event after watching Li’s livestream. “I didn’t know there was such thing as therapy dogs,” Wang told Sixth Tone. “She (my dog) makes me happy every day, and I think she can bring happiness to other people in need as well.”

Another pet owner, Bian Yunyun, told Sixth Tone she decided to participate in Paw for Heal because her 5-year-old mutt Zara has always been so tender, loving, and patient with her young son, as well as the family’s more active Labrador. Zara started the course last fall and is currently an “intern.” After completing another two training sessions, she will officially be a therapy dog.

Bian recounted how, during a recent visit to a high-end elder care home in Shanghai, one of the residents in a wheelchair hit it off particularly well with Zara.

“I spoke to her and learned that she has a dog, too, though she wasn’t able to bring him with her to the nursing home,” Bian said. As the woman “walked” Zara up and down the hallways, Bian remembers the big smile that lit up her face.

In the last episode of Li’s therapy dog-themed online series, broadcast Sunday evening, one of the flamboyant host’s pets graduated and became a full-fledged therapy dog. “Thanks to Li’s influence, the number of therapy dogs in China could skyrocket to 1,000, even 100,000,” Wu said.

Editor: David Paulk.

Spousal Distancing: The Chinese Couples Divorcing Over COVID-19


Zhang Ning will soon be reunited with her husband. He left the couple’s hometown of Wuhan to visit relatives in late January, and just days later the central Chinese city suddenly went into lockdown, leaving him unable to return for over two months. But China is now easing travel restrictions as its COVID-19 epidemic subsides, allowing him to finally come home.

Zhang couldn’t be less excited.

“I’ve told him I’ve decided to divorce him,” the 34-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

Rather than making their hearts grow fonder, the prolonged separation has exposed deep fissures in the couple’s relationship that they’d previously ignored, according to Zhang. She was left alone taking care of her elderly parents-in-law and 8-year-old son in a city at the heart of a global pandemic — and her husband was less than sympathetic.

“When I called him wanting to release my emotions, at first he comforted me a bit, but then he became impatient,” says Zhang. One day, he snapped at her: “Aren’t you supposed to do all this?”

For Zhang, it was the final straw. For years, she’d stayed with her husband for the sake of their child, but from that moment on, she decided she was better off without him.

“I’ve never felt that determined in my life,” says Zhang. “The pandemic helped me make up my mind.”

Many Chinese couples have had similar realizations during the past few months. As cities began relaxing their virus-control policies in early March, registry offices across the country were swamped by an unprecedented number of divorce appointments.

The northwestern city of Xi’an saw a surge in divorces, while a district in the southwestern city of Dazhou also reported a sharp increase in divorce applications between Feb. 24 and March 11.

Lan Zi, a divorce counselor at a marriage registry office in the southern city of Shenzhen, says she’s been overwhelmed by the growing number of couples seeking her services since the start of the pandemic.

“Couples are having to make reservations a month in advance before they can get a divorce,” Lan tells Sixth Tone.

The recent spike follows years of rapid increases in China’s divorce rate, fueled by economic and societal changes that are empowering the nation’s women and undermining traditional taboos against dissolving marriages.

Nearly 4.5 million couples got divorced in 2018, a 2% year-over-year increase. Over a longer time frame, the increase is even more striking. China’s divorce rate in 2018 — 3.2 for every 1,000 people — is nearly six times higher than the rate for 1987. In the United States, by contrast, the divorce rate has been falling over the past decade and now stands at 2.9 per 1,000.

The Chinese government has even felt the need to introduce policies designed to discourage couples from splitting. Getting a divorce in China is easy and cheap, with the formalities often taking less than an hour and costing as little as 9 yuan ($1.25), but legislators in December of last year proposed requiring couples to observe a 30-day “cool-off” period before officially ending their marriages.

Local registry offices have also started offering free premarital and divorce counseling in recent years. Lan, the Shenzhen-based counselor, says she’s helped 115 couples reconcile with each other and cancel their divorce appointments during the past two months.

The recent crisis, however, has been unlike anything Lan has seen before. For many couples, being locked up at home together for weeks created new tensions in their relationships and exacerbated old ones — and even counseling is not enough to resolve them.

“Home isolation can cause many family conflicts to erupt,” Lan tells Sixth Tone. “A lot of ordinary little things may cause divides, or even become more intense — directly affecting the intimate relationship between husband and wife or leading to a marital crisis.”

Hong Lanzhen, a divorce lawyer based in the southern city of Dongguan, says she’s already handled multiple cases in which her clients have emerged from lockdowns determined to get divorced as quickly as possible.

“One thing these couples have in common is that their relationships were fragile before the outbreak,” says Hong. “Quarantine forced them to stay together. The longer they were locked down, the more problems they had and the more disagreeable they were with each other.”

Xiao Mei, a 32-year-old from Beijing, moved out of the apartment she used to share with her husband and filed for divorce soon after life in the city started to return to normal. She tells Sixth Tone the crisis revealed her husband’s “true face.”

According to Xiao, her husband always used to tell her he was too busy with work to help with housework and child care. “But this time (during the lockdown) he had plenty of time, yet he still did nothing,” says Xiao. “I finally realized my husband is a giant baby, and I don’t want to carry on with this widow-like existence anymore.”

“The pandemic has been like the final straw to break marriages,” says Li Hua, a psychologist based in Zibo, East China’s Shandong province. “The small spears and shields that could be ignored or tolerated get suddenly exposed and pile up one on top of each other like a sharp knife, cutting mercilessly at the relationship.”

The lockdowns came as a particular shock to the huge number of Chinese couples in long-distance relationships. The country has an estimated 288 million migrant workers as of 2018, with many living apart from their spouses and children for large chunks of the year as they work long hours in the big cities.

Until the pandemic, Zheng Rujun only saw her husband once a month, as the pair had jobs in cities a three-hour drive apart in the southern Guangdong province. Their relationship was stable, and the couple treated each other with respect during their monthly visits, according to Zheng. Things quickly changed, however, once they found themselves living together for the first time since their wedding in 2017.

“He throws dirty clothes and smelly socks all over the house; he plays video games on his phone all day long; and when I share with him my worries about the virus, he mocks me for making a fuss,” Zheng tells Sixth Tone.

After a few weeks, Zheng couldn’t take it anymore and told her husband she wanted to break up. He was against the idea, telling her things would go back to normal once the lockdowns were over. But Zheng’s mind was made up. “Since I’ve already uncovered these problems I can’t bear, why waste time?” the 27-year-old says.

For others, it was the stress of being separated during the lockdowns that opened up new marital rifts, according to Li, the psychologist. “Women especially often feel anxious and insecure about their relationships,” says Li. “They worry about their husbands’ safety and whether they’re cheating.”

According to Li, many of her female clients repeatedly asked their partners to send photos and videos of themselves to prove they were where they said they were. “I’ll help them … understand that their behavior will only push their husbands away,” she says. “When you feel inferior, you’ll be afraid of others abandoning you.”

Financial pressures have been another source of strife, with firms cutting staff and the self-employed sometimes suffering drastic reductions in income as a result of the pandemic. The added stress has sometimes pushed marriages to their breaking point, according to Lan, the divorce counselor.

“The outbreak cuts off household incomes and the stress that comes with it triggers emotional crises,” says Lan. “We’ve seen this a lot during our daily work during the pandemic.”

Not every relationship has been damaged by the crisis, however. Some couples have emerged from the lockdowns closer than ever. According to a survey by LoveMatters China, a platform for sex and intimacy education, nearly 300 of 1,500 respondents said they’d “stuck together” with their partners 24/7 during the lockdowns. Of those that had done so, 55% agreed that the daily super-close contact helped them communicate better and improved their relationships.

Although disasters bring huge trauma and loss, researchers have found that they often also push survivors to move forward: People who are afraid and lonely marry earlier; those in the wrong relationships end them faster; and families considering having children stop hesitating.

Chinese regions that experience earthquakes typically see their divorce and marriage rates rise by 6.1% and 1.9% respectively the following year, a study published in 2016 found. In the United States, the marriage, divorce, and fertility rates in South Carolina also increased following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, another study showed.

“The disaster may simply act as an accelerator or catalyst for people’s actions,” explains Li. “They come to recognize the status of their marriages during the pandemic — this special life-or-death period — and make firmer decisions.”

Wang Liting, 35, says COVID-19 helped her understand what truly mattered to her. She’d been thinking about divorcing her husband of nearly 10 years before the pandemic struck.

“I felt like he didn’t get me,” says Wang. “And I had a really bad relationship with my mother-in-law, who was always pushing me to have kids.”

Wang had a change of heart, though, after the couple was confined to their home in Shenzhen. She started to feel unwell and panicked, fearing she’d been infected with the coronavirus.

But then her husband stepped up, according to Wang. He took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with just a regular flu bug. He cooked for her, did all the housework, and watched comedy shows with her to help her relax.

“I felt so loved in our marriage for the first time,” says Wang. “That’s when I knew he was the one I could rely on.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

Meet China’s Ace Ventura, Pet Detective Sun Jinrong


SHANGHAI — On a freezing December night, three men rush into a downtown residential complex carrying a ladder, flashlights, and backpacks loaded with high-tech detection equipment.

The black-clad figures are here to meet their latest client, who called the team in distress just hours before. The woman, a Shanghai native in her 20s, says her loved one has been missing for days and she doesn’t know what to do.

Sun Jinrong, the lead detective, quickly establishes the target’s details: white, less than half a meter tall, around 4 kilograms in weight. Then, he begins sweeping the woman’s home for clues.

Sixth Tone spent an evening tailing lost pets with Shanghai-based pet detective, Sun Jinrong. By Daniel Holmes and Zhou Zhen/Sixth Tone

Within minutes, Sun spots a half-open window — the most likely escape route, he deduces. He heads to the complex’s security room to view surveillance footage of the building.

Just as he suspected, the recording shows a white cat dropping down from the window. Moments later, a couple from the same building carries it away.

Sun finds out which apartment belongs to the couple and heads straight there. Taking out his cat-hair detector, he bangs on the door. The suspects are caught red-handed.

The client repeatedly thanks Sun as he hands over her rescued pet and transfers 2,000 yuan ($285) to his bank account. The whole job has taken about 30 minutes.

For Sun, it’s all in a night’s work. Since 2013, the man who styles himself as China’s first pet detective has helped more than 1,000 pet owners track down missing cats and dogs.

Sun’s business has boomed in recent years as China has emerged as a nation of animal lovers. Nearly 100 million Chinese households now have a pet — up 44% since 2014 — and the country’s pet market grew over 18% year-over-year to reach 200 billion yuan last year.

In a 2019 survey, nearly 60% of Chinese pet owners said they viewed their pets as their children, and they’re increasingly willing to spend large sums to pamper their little four-legged emperors. High-end pet accessories, lavish pet funerals, and even pet cloning are all growing in popularity.

From his base in suburban Shanghai, where he lives in a rented house with his crew of 10 assistants, Sun now serves around 30 clients per month in cities across China. His fee for a Shanghai-based job starts from 800 yuan, while Beijing pet owners pay at least 8,500 yuan — including airfare and accommodation.

His fame has spread through word-of-mouth and a clever social media game. Each time he rescues an animal, Sun asks the owner to record a short video for his TikTok and Weibo social media channels. He now has 150,000 and 76,000 followers on the platforms, respectively.

The son of an air force mechanic, Sun grew up on a Chinese military base — an experience that taught him rigor and discipline, he says. In person, he exudes a poker-faced professionalism that helps him calm down often-emotional clients.

“Some cry on the phone and are still crying when they see me,” Sun tells Sixth Tone. “They regard me as their savior and place all their hopes on me.”

The 38-year-old moved to Shanghai with his parents from the neighboring Anhui province over a decade ago. He started his career working in a printing factory, volunteering at a pet fostering agency in his spare time.

At the agency, Sun’s role was to rescue strays and then arrange for them to be adopted. Occasionally, newly adopted cats and dogs would go missing, and Sun would help the owners search for them. He soon found he had a knack for it.

“It’s like they (the animals) are playing hide-and-seek with me,” says Sun. “I have to think about how to win the game.”

Owners began approaching Sun directly, offering to pay him to find their lost pets. In 2013, he decided to quit his factory job and become a full-time pet detective.

Success didn’t come overnight, however. Pets were still relatively rare in many parts of China at the time, and owners didn’t cherish their animals in quite the same way. “People hadn’t yet reached the point of being willing to pay to recover their lost pets,” says Sun.

For a long time, Sun couldn’t support himself financially and had to eat at his parents’ house to save money. His family, with their military background, struggled to accept his choice of profession. “They’re of a generation that doesn’t think anything to do with pets and animals is a real job,” says Sun.

In the early days, Sun had a hard time convincing potential clients to trust him. Many accused him of being a fraud, he says. But as he cracked more and more cases, he gradually built up a reputation.

“When the owners are reunited with their pets, they thank me with tears, laughter, and inarticulate exclamations,” says Sun. “Some have even gotten down on their knees.”

The detective takes his career extremely seriously. Over the years, he’s witnessed how the loss of a pet can deeply affect people’s lives: Clients have quit their jobs to search for missing dogs, while couples have started fighting and eventually divorced, he says.

He invests heavily in equipment that might be useful during a case. His minivan is stuffed with cat traps, night vision devices, monitors, and alarms with wireless transmission functions. The most expensive gadget — a life detector used by disaster rescue teams to locate survivors — cost over 20,000 yuan.

The former factory worker is also a devoted autodidact. He spent two years learning to imitate the calls of young birds to lure out hidden cats. When he’s not on duty, he reads books on psychology and zoology.

“Since I’m a pet detective, I have to learn more about animal behavior and the mentality of pet owners,” says Sun.

For Sun, the key to a pet detective’s success is learning the art of deduction. Whenever he arrives at a client’s home, his first move is to get a description of the animal, including its age, gender, breed, and whether it’s been neutered. “If it’s a senior husky, we know it won’t have run too far away,” he says.

Pet owners often fail to find their pets because they’re blinded by emotion, according to Sun.

“They say, ‘my baby is so smart; he’d never fall into a river or trap,’ or, ‘there’s no way my timid dog would cross the road by himself,’” says Sun. “It limits their search.”

When asked about his success rate, Sun says it depends on the specifics of each case. “If the dog is lost in a region where people have the tradition of eating dog meat, the chances of finding it are close to zero,” he says.

He’s learned to manage his clients’ expectations and stress that the outcome is always uncertain. “For the pet owners, it makes no difference if the odds of success are 40% or 80%,” he says. “To them, the pet is either found or it isn’t.”

The joy of success has faded over the years as it’s become routine, says Sun. But the memories of failed cases are still “painful.” If he isn’t able to locate a client’s pet, Sun will normally never speak with them again.

“We tend to let the owner heal by themselves, rather than bring back unpleasant memories,” says Sun. “We can’t and dare not offer any follow-up service, unlike other industries.”

Sometimes, however, cases resolve themselves naturally. The same December night that found Sun retrieving the white cat, the team failed to locate the feline of a Taiwanese resident nearby, despite looking for three hours.

Sun had tried everything to lure out the animal — which he sensed was hiding somewhere near the man’s apartment building — setting up a cage full of dried squid with two cameras trained on it. The cat, however, failed to appear, and the team finally gave up at 2 a.m.

Two days later, the man informed Sun he’d found the cat wandering around just outside the building’s entrance.

“A happy ending,” says Sun. “I hope my industry will disappear one day, because it’ll mean no more pets will be lost.”

Contributions: Zhou Zhen; editor: Dominic Morgan.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

How COVID-19 Sparked a Silver Tech Revolution in China


SHANGHAI — Two months ago, Xu Wenyan didn’t even have a data plan on her phone. Now, the 62-year-old spends most of her day online.

Each morning, Xu orders groceries using a mobile app. Then, she listens to the news on her phone while cooking. Afternoons are for sharing photos of her freshly prepared dishes with her friends. After dinner, she and her husband often play around with a karaoke app, waiting eagerly for other users to comment on their performances.

Like millions of elderly Chinese, the spread of the novel coronavirus has forced Xu to embrace the digital world. As the country struggled to contain the virus, the markets, stores, and parks that she frequented in central Shanghai suddenly shut down — leaving her feeling helpless.

“I was really upset at first,” Xu tells Sixth Tone. “I didn’t even know how to deal with the meals, let alone find alternatives for other leisure activities.”

Though China’s cities are now slowly coming back to life, the country’s tech firms are hoping the lockdowns will prove to be a game changer, opening up a huge tranche of new users that were previously out-of-reach.

China has around 250 million people over 60, and this figure is expected to surpass 480 million by the middle of the century. In Shanghai, over one-third of residents are aged over 60.

In the past, Chinese seniors were far less likely to use digital services than younger generations. According to data released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2018, some 60% of people over 50 watch videos on their smartphones and just over half have used digital payment methods like Alipay and WeChat Pay. Around one-third of the group use navigation and online shopping apps, while only one-quarter use ride-hailing services.

But internet companies have reported a surge in business from elderly users since the outbreak began, according to Duan Mingjie, founder of AgeClub, a consulting firm that advises brands on how to target older-age customers.

“Many of our clients have witnessed significant growth in (elderly) users and sales of some of their paid services have increased 50%-80%,” says Duan. “The quarantines have encouraged the aging population to use apps to meet various needs in life.”

The biggest beneficiaries have been online grocery companies. Customers have turned to delivery services in droves to avoid visiting crowded supermarkets — or because they have been banned from leaving their residential compounds, as has happened in several virus-stricken areas.

During Spring Festival — when China was uncovering hundreds of new infections each day — Alibaba’s online supermarket Hema reported that orders were up 220% year-over-year. Sales for competitors Miss Fresh and JD.com’s online grocery platform, meanwhile, were up 350% and 470% during the same period, respectively.

New business from elderly users appeared to account for a significant chunk of these increases. According to Alibaba, the number of grocery orders placed by users born in the ’60s was four times higher than normal during Spring Festival. Miss Fresh claims its number of users aged over 40 has risen by 237% during the pandemic.

Xu and her husband started using grocery-ordering apps in late January. There’s a wet market just a 10-minute walk from the couple’s home, and Xu says she enjoys shopping there. But she became reluctant to go due to the shortage of face masks in Shanghai.

“My daughter has been trying to talk me into buying groceries using apps for over a year, and now I’m finally open to it,” says Xu.

The couple downloaded five apps on their daughter’s recommendation. Initially, however, the services didn’t turn out to be as convenient as they’d expected. The massive number of orders being placed, combined with the shortage of delivery drivers during Spring Festival, made it difficult for Xu to get the goods she wanted.

“I set an alarm to place orders for each app in the morning,” says Xu. The earliest would go off at 4:30 a.m. “I could mostly get what I wanted,” she adds. “I even sent some stuff to my daughter, as she couldn’t get up that early.”

Before the pandemic, Xu estimates, less than 10% of her friends had tried buying groceries online. Now, she says, nearly all of them have experimented with it. On the messaging app WeChat, her contacts are continually sending each other links to new items on the apps and tips on how to get good discounts.

The elderly have turned to tech to meet other needs, too. Chen Xianhua, a retired accountant from Shanghai, tells Sixth Tone she’s been ordering medicine and consulting doctors via health apps during the crisis. Meituan, one of the country’s largest delivery platforms, reported orders for medication related to chronic diseases including high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis increased by over 200% during Spring Festival.

Chen and her husband have also become big fans of the short video platforms TikTok and Kuaishou, which they downloaded for the first time in February. Chen says they mainly watch funny skits, videos of cute dogs, and livestreams of shows on the apps, as well as news about the pandemic.

“The whole social atmosphere is quite depressing at the moment — we need to keep our sense of humor,” says Chen. “Without these apps, I don’t know how my husband and I would ever stay optimistic.”

For the tech giants, the question is whether their new silver-haired users will stick around after the pandemic subsides. Several of them have already laid out strategies to target the elderly, judging it to be a growth market.

Miss Fresh has announced plans to roll out new services and product categories for older consumers, after seeing the potential in the market over recent weeks. Alibaba has already started down this path, launching a special senior-friendly version of its Taobao shopping app in 2018.

Chen, who first tried ordering groceries online six months ago, says she still prefers going to the wet market herself, because she enjoys chatting with her neighbors and bargaining with the vendors. But she’s come to value the apps, especially when it’s raining or she’s feeling tired.

“At first, I had concerns,” says Chen. “But then I found the vegetables I ordered online to be just as fresh as the ones I personally pick in the market … The app offers me an alternative.”

The 65-year-old has also gotten hooked on some of the app’s extra features, such as the “what to eat and cook” section, which suggests new recipes to try. She’s even started posting her own recipes on another cookery app she recently downloaded, as she enjoys reading the comments posted by other users.

“I’m keen on being active online, because I don’t want to be behind the times,” says Chen.

AgeClub founder Duan says elderly consumers often describe going through a similar shift in mindset during his company’s focus groups.

“This pandemic will have a significant impact, as it’ll make many elderly people who didn’t previously use the internet form new online consumption habits,” says Duan. “Once elderly users get used to the internet, they find there is far greater choice online.”

Xu is no longer getting up before dawn to secure a delivery slot, but she still enjoys surprising her daughter with her newfound tech savvy.

“My daughter said it had never occurred to her that one day I’d be ordering vegetables for her online,” she says. “It makes me feel useful and up-to-date.”


This article was published onSixth Tone.

China Has a Problem With Bad Sex Advice. Can a New Exam Fix It?


Guo Yun finally found the courage to step into a sex shop last year to buy a dildo for her birthday. Before long, however, she retreated back to the streets of downtown Shanghai, confused and disappointed.

“It was one of the most elegant sex shops I’ve seen in the city, and I thought they’d have professional sales assistants as well,” says Guo. “But instead, they just kept promoting the most expensive products.”

The final straw came when the 26-year-old asked why the deluxe versions would suit her needs, and the staff replied: “With dildos, the bigger, the better.” “I’m no expert, but instinct told me that’s not right,” says Guo.

Guo’s experience reflects those of countless others in China who are throwing off decades of sexual conservatism and becoming more experimental in the bedroom, but are often receiving poor advice from vendors with little understanding of the products and services they’re selling.

Demand for sex toys has skyrocketed in recent years, with tech giants including Alibaba promising door-to-door dildo delivery at 30 minutes’ notice. China’s online market for sex products is predicted to exceed 60 billion yuan ($8.5 billion) by 2020, up 250% compared with 2017, according to consulting firm iiMedia.

But the boom is taking place in a society where sexual knowledgetends to be low. Sex education at most Chinese schools is extremely basic, and parents and teachers often oppose moves to provide students with more practical advice. Sexual content in the media and online, meanwhile, is strictly controlled.

The result has often been widespread confusion. Industry insiders tell Sixth Tone companies are regularly misleading customers, from beauty firms making fanciful claims about the benefits of their vaginal oils, to staff at “delay spray” producers not realizing their intercourse-prolonging products are different from anti-impotence drugs like Viagra.

Now, the government is stepping in. This past November, the China Health Care Association — a national-level industry organization backed by the Ministry of Health — launched a standardized training program for a newly identified profession: sex health counselor.

The new program defines sex health counselors as any professionals involved in aiding consumers with their sex lives, including intimate masseurs, sex coaches, and sex shop owners, as well as staff inside China’s vast family-planning regime. Its ultimate goal is to provide every “counselor” in the country — around 12 million people — with a thorough grounding in the birds and the bees.

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Sex toys are displayed at a sex shop in Shanghai, March 28, 2018. Fan Yiying

According to its organizers, the training scheme will bring order to the rapidly growing sex products market, as well as support the Chinese government’s wider push to boost the nation’s reproductive health.

“The next 10 years will be an important period for the development of China’s sexual and reproductive health industry,” says Zhao Jing, deputy secretary-general of reproductive health at the China Health Care Association. “Training professional specialists is urgent and essential.”

The program enrolled its first batch of around 200 students — a mix of reproductive health care workers, sex product vendors, and beauticians specializing in vaginal treatments — in late 2019.

Over 30 online classes, the participants received lectures on sexual values and minorities, pleasure skills, sexual disorders, and sexual and reproductive health, among other topics. In late December, they sat a test. Three-quarters passed.

Recruitment of a second batch of students kicked off Feb. 19, and Zhao says the association also plans to launch a more advanced course in June. The higher-level training will focus more on sexual techniques and will be targeted at beauticians.

“At present, there are many nonstandard practices in the domestic beauty industry, so we hope to invite experts to provide technical guidance … to better regulate the market,” says Zhao. “Over 35% of the junior certificate holders have already asked us how they can get the intermediate one.”

Yang Fan was among the first people to sign up for the entry-level course, which is currently voluntary. He has run a sex shop in the northwestern city of Xi’an since 2015, but he often feels out-of-his-depth when customers ask him how they can spice things up at home.

“I wish to provide them with more professional advice — especially women, because women here are still embarrassed to discuss sexual problems,” says Yang. “But the more professional I am, the more open they’ll be.”

According to Yang, the training program has inspired him to hold sharing sessions at his shop to promote his business and teach people what he’s learned. He hopes this strategy will win out over the aggressive tactics used by most of his competitors, who often pressure new visitors into buying pricey, multifunction dildos unsuited to their needs.

“They’re new to this, and they use high-end products and freak out,” says Yang. “Bad advice like this prevents people from coming back for more.”

He Miao, a worker at a Xi’an-based delay spray manufacturer, has also found the course beneficial. In the past, she received a lot of complaints from customers claiming the firm’s products didn’t work, but now she’s learned how to help people make better use of them, she says.

“Before, I thought only sprays could help men last longer, but now I can share with my customers that a combination of products and techniques works better,” says He. “It’s just like if you were sick — buying medicine by yourself and taking it under a doctor’s guidance will produce different results.”

For others, the course’s main attraction is the chance to gain an officially recognized qualification. Zhang Bimin, 28, is a sex coach who teaches women how to pleasure themselves via online tutorials on social media app WeChat. She says it’s important the government recognizes her profession.

“After the relevant department issued the certificates to us, I felt more confident in my work,” says Zhang, who’s based in the southern megacity of Shenzhen.

Cheng Jingjing, a Shanghai-based stay-at-home mom, took the online classes while also studying to become a certified psychological counselor, listening to the lectures while cooking or at the beauty salon. She feels the certificate will help her build a career advising clients on sexual health online.

“I figured people are more comfortable talking about sex online,” says Cheng. “And having a certificate will make me look more professional and trustworthy.”

The course helped Cheng on a personal level, too. She says the LGBT and BDSM classes were particularly eye-opening. “I also learned a lot about men’s confusion and anxiety about sex, which has improved my relationship with my husband,” she adds.

Cheng hopes to use the knowledge she’s gained to help her friends and relatives, many of whom stopped having sex after they had children. Yet this is proving to be an uphill battle.

“They complain about their husbands and shout at their children … mainly due to their unsatisfying sex lives,” says Cheng. “But unfortunately, every time I start a conversation (about this), they just avoid talking about it.”

For Yang, the main obstacle to sharing his newfound knowledge with the public is, ironically, the government. After posting videos about sex culture and products on a few popular online platforms, his accounts were blocked — a fact he blames on the authorities’ strict rules against so-called vulgar content.

“Due to a lack of publicity, many people don’t know these toys can play a role in improving their sex lives, making their marriages more harmonious,” says Yang. “We’re posting positive content online and should have been supported by the government.”

Like most of the certificate holders who spoke with Sixth Tone, however, Yang believes the training program should eventually be made mandatory. This is the only way, they feel, that the public will come to accept sex health counseling as a profession.

“It’s the same as psychology,” says He, the delay spray worker. “At first, people were opposed to it, feeling that those who see a therapist are neurotic. But then they saw psychologists were licensed and the industry seemed regulated, and they understood it’s normal to have psychological problems and seek professional help.

“One day, people will feel the same about sex health counseling,” He adds.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.