At first glance, the story of Su Xiangmao and Zhai Xinxin has all the familiarity of a modern fairy tale. The two made contact through online dating site Jiayuan.com, which means ‘beautiful destiny’ in Chinese. When they finally met face-to-face in the presence of a matchmaker – part of the platform’s VIP service – Su felt that Zhai – young and beautiful – was out of his league. He went on with his life thinking he would never hear from the girl again.
But the next day, Su received a text from Zhai saying she would like to meet again. That evening, the two had dinner together and within two months, Su and Zhai had tied the knot.
Their story did not end there, however. Last week, their relationship became headline news after Su, 37, jumped to his death from the top of an apartment building. In his suicide note, which had been posted online, the founder of China’s Skype-like WePhone app, explained that he had decided to kill himself because Zhai, 31, had blackmailed him by demanding that he pay her Rmb10 million ($1.5 million) as a “break-up fee” after he filed for divorce. If he failed to comply, he wrote, she threatened to report his business, which operated in a legal grey area, to the authorities.
In the note, Su claimed that a month after they married, he had discovered that Zhai had lied about her age, marital history – she was divorced at least once – and other details on her dating profile on Jiayuan.
Su killed himself because he felt desperate after failing to come up with the money. The entrepreneur also said WePhone would suspend its services after his death.
News of his death caused a stir, with many netizens saying that the dating site should be held responsible. Although Jiayuan later confirmed that both Su and Zhai had registered with their real names, the website was also criticised for failing to verify their personal information. Shares of Baihe.com, the dating site that merged with Jiayuan in 2015, plunged by almost half after the news broke. In a single day, the online dating platform saw its market value on NASDAQ, where its shares are listed, shrink by Rmb1.7 billion.
As the country’s most popular dating app, Jiayuan boasted over 170 million registered users as of the end of July 2016.
The company makes the majority of its revenue from its VIP service, to which both Zhai and Su had subscribed. For a six-monthly fee of Rmb6,800, a matchmaker is tasked with bringing two strangers together. But one former matchmaker at Jiayuan admits that not all the members on the platform are looking for love. “There are a lot of direct sales and insurance agents. It is much more reliable to look for a partner offline than online,” she suggests.
After the tragedy, other victims came forward saying that they had been scammed on Jiayuan. A woman from Sichuan claimed a man from Hong Kong whom she met on the platform vanished after borrowing Rmb360,000 and a search of ‘jiayuan.com’ on itslaw.com, a database recording court decisions, reveals 559 cases linked to criminals.
So far this year 48 criminal cases associated with Jiayuan have been recorded, says TechNode, a tech blog.
Even though China’s Cyber Security Law – enacted in June – requires all social media services (including dating sites) to implement real-name registration for users, the system has many loopholes. A reporter from Beijing News used a photoshopped ID to test the registration process on Jiayuan, and it was approved within a few hours.
So is Jiayuan legally accountable for the death of Su?
Zhang Xinnian, a lawyer in Beijing, reckons that from a legal standpoint, unless the company knowingly allows scammers onto its platform, it should not be held responsible for the consequences.
Marital histories, criminal records and medical files are also categorised as “private information,” which means netizens are not obliged to share them with online service providers, Fang Chaoqiang, a Hangzhou-based attorney, told ThePaper.cn, a news website.
“We have to understand that there is a difference between the real name registration requirement and revealing every bit of one’s private information,” said Fang.
Others warned against a repeat of Su’s experience. In an interview with Information Daily, his brother said that after a few dates, Zhai had already asked Su for a house in Hainan and a car. “My brother was silly enough to believe that a young and educated woman who is 170cm tall would fall in love at first sight with a man that is only 160cm,” he lamented.
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