KUALA LUMPUR -- The growing popularity of online gay-friendly adverts in China shows business is waking up to the 'pink yuan' and more liberal attitudes among young people but the government remains unmoved.
China's gay economy is worth $300 billion to $500 billion annually, reaching some 70 million people, according to Daxue Consulting, a market research firm - making it the biggest gay and transgender market in the world in terms of population.
"Young Chinese people do appear to be opening up and accepting LGBT+ culture," Allison Malmsten, China analyst at the Shanghai-based company, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The LGBT+ market in China has a lot of untapped potential."
Homosexuality has been legal in China since 1997 and the country's largest organization for psychiatrists stopped classifying it as a mental disorder in 2001.
But same-sex marriage is not recognized and most LGBT+ people fear coming out to their families because of stigma.
An online advert showing a man bringing his partner home to celebrate the Lunar New Year with his family went viral across China last month, sparking positive responses among the LGBT+ community for helping break taboos in the conservative country.
The video by China's Alibaba Group, which specializes in e-commerce sites, is part of a growing trend, largely led by technology firms targeting millennials aged 23 to 38 and gay and trans consumers, said industry and LGBT+ analysts.
"Many of these companies have young consumers and showing inclusivity simply makes an ad memorable," said Malmsten.
"Look at the buzz created from the Alibaba advert - netizens and media spreading the advertisement all over, and at no extra cost for the company."
Chinese internet search giant Baidu, e-commerce company Dangdang, and ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing have also promoted LGBT+ friendly adverts in recent years.
The government often censors news, television shows and films that touch on LGBT+ issues in the name of "family values" while media companies self-censor, gay rights activists say.
China scrubbed at least 10 scenes with gay references from 2018's Oscar-winning biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" about British musician Freddie Mercury.
"If we want to achieve a friendly and inclusive social environment, we need much more LGBTQ images on TV and in newspapers for (help) changing the law and social norms," said Yang Yi of the China Rainbow Media Awards.
"LGBTQ+ issues are becoming more and more invisible," said Yi, whose organisation works to improve gay and trans coverage.
But companies looking to carve out a slice of the country's pink economy must tread carefully. Subtlety is key.
"These ads, for the most part, do not outright voice support for same-sex couples, rather include them as an element in advertisements being accepted by others," said Daxue Consulting's Malmsten.
A Cathay Pacific Airways advert that showed a same-sex couple holding hands on a beach was banned in a government-run airport and metro stations last year in Chinese-controlled Hong Kong, which has been rocked by months of pro-democracy protests.
The ban was later reversed after an online backlash by LGBT+ activists, according to local media reports.
Social media is harder to police, leading to a trickle of gay-friendly online adverts that target a specific audience.
China banned online content showing "abnormal" behaviors - including homosexuality - in 2017 in a bid to promote "socialist values" and to assert Communist Party control over online discussions in the traditionally Confucian society.
But when China's Twitter-equivalent Weibo banned gay content in 2018, it was forced to reverse its decision within days after an outcry among pro-LGBT+ Chinese, using hashtags, open letters and even calling on people to dump shares in the company.
In a sign of changing attitudes, China's top legislative body, the National People's Congress, last year said that introducing same-sex marriage was one of the most popular requests made by people.
While no new legislation was outlined, the statement raised hopes of reform among LGBT+ Chinese in a year when Taiwan became the first place in Asia to allow same-sex marriage.
Popo Fan, a Chinese filmmaker and LGBT+ activist based in Berlin, said the impact of pro-gay online content was limited in China as it often only reached young, well-educated, tech-savvy people on high incomes.
"Those advertisements are only targeting people who can buy or use the internet and smartphones," he said.
"A lot of people don't have this access and they have no opportunity to get any (LGBT+) information."
While pro-gay adverts can help to challenge taboos, China is far from accepting or legalizing same-sex relationships, said Suki Chung, an LGBT+ rights campaigner at Amnesty International.
And many companies were simply riding the "pride bandwagon" of LGBT+ marketing, without having genuinely inclusive policies towards sexual and gender minorities, she said from Hong Kong.
"LGBTI marketing ads will become a growing trend in the greater China region, given the lucrative pink dollars and the look-good image of being a 'social change maker' or pioneer," she said.
"Real change is still far away given that the Chinese government still imposes tight controls ... but the power of online netizens and LGBTI communities in fighting back against the government propaganda is strong."