Picture for representation
Illustration picture shows a page of a date hiring app "Hire Me Plz", which says "rent now for 999 yuan. Reuters

China's girlfriend/boyfriend rental smartphone apps have become an instant hit among youngsters who are heading home this Chinese New Year and want to keep interfering relatives and pacify worrying parents at bay.

Single people who visit home once or twice a year are often bombarded with lectures about the importance of marriage and securing the family blood line, Reuters reports. Hence, many people resort to hiring fake girlfriends and boyfriends to introduce to their parents. "Over 1,000 users on our platform have signed up as dates for hire for the New Year break," said Cao Tiantian, founder of date-for-hire app Hire Me Plz, according to the news agency.

What makes these apps more popular is that they don't burn a hole in the pocket and have a wide range of options. The subscriber can hire someone for as little as 1 yuan ($0.15). However, the prices rise according to service needed. The subscriber is charged about 1,999 yuan for dinner date, a chat, a game of mah-jong or even a foot massage. During holidays such as the Lunar New Year, demand rises and prices surge. A subscriber has to pay anything from 3,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan a day.

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"I'm still seeking people to fill my time slots," said a woman from the southwestern province of Sichuan, according to the news agency. "But only those who stay in the same province as me. I don't have time to waste on travel," she added.

According to reports, Hire Me Plz was launched in 2015 and since then it has garnered 700,000 users and 1.7 million followers on Tencent's (0700.HK) WeChat.

Other than Hire Me Plz, there are five major date-hiring apps in China. The subscriber has to pay subscription fees to use the app and the person who is getting hired has to give a certain amount from their income. "Our business model is still new, though an increasing number of young people have accepted the idea of selling their time as commodity," said Beijing-based Cao, as reported. Cao believes that the date-rental business will become a multi-billion dollar market in five years.

Dating services are also offered by individuals in China on Baidu's (BIDU.O) Tieba classifieds and Tencent's QQ messaging service. However, the identity of the individual and authentication of the service is debatable.

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Hire Me Plz's Cao said she wanted to create an app which will help people to battle with loneliness and alienation which are become a common psychological problem among the working professionals in big cities. "I was seeking a more effective way to ask someone out. Who wants to chat for months via social networks and end up with nothing?" she said, as reported.

Criticism from netizens

However, date rentals - offline or online - have been heavily criticised in recent years. While some raised questions about the morality and legality of the business, others say it is a form of prostitution, which is banned in China.

Li Hongzhao, an official of the Beijing Lawyers Association Criminal Law Committee, argues that it is extremely hard to define the boundaries of appropriate intimacy and there is a risk that such intimacy can become sexual assault. "There are no clear prohibitions in Chinese laws regarding date rentals. But risks exist among such deals, which may also violate the law to some extent," said Li, as reported by a state-run China News Services.

Date-for-hire services apps are popular not only in China but in other Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore. However, they are mostly website-only platforms. Singapore's Pally Asia, which calls itself a "rent-a-friend" platform, plans to push out an app in the first half of this year.