BEIJING (China Daily/Asia News Network) - Liang Shu applied for a very special part-time job when she was a freshman - being a virtual girlfriend, or paid online girlfriend, to total strangers.
"I thought it would be fun and make me some extra money as well," said the 19-year-old student in Shanghai.
"All the job requires is that we listen to clients and meet as many of their requests as possible," Liang said.
Online lover services, with charges ranging from 1 to 5 yuan (S$0.22 to S$1.09) per hour in most cases, have become one of the latest offerings in China's vast virtual marketplace.
According to the Taobao Index, which tracks trends based on data from Taobao.com, the e-commerce platform owned by Alibaba Group Holding, there were about 1,000 searches for "virtual boyfriends and girlfriends" on Thursday.
More than 1,000 online stores tout such services at Taobao.
Clients can order specific types of virtual lovers. For example, there is "the gentleman", "the sunshine boy" or the "bossy lover". There are also more personalised services such as morning calls and a virtual good-night kiss.
Clients usually communicate through instant messaging services such as WeChat and QQ. To protect privacy, buyers are not allowed to ask about real names, locations or photographs, or to apply for video chatting.
Yan Ling, the owner of a virtual lover store based in Anhui province, said it had received more orders in the run-up to Valentine's Day.
Yan said, "People usually find it difficult to express their emotions frankly with friends or relatives, while the Internet is somewhere you can relax and relieve life's pressures."
He said he was motivated to do such part-time work to enable people to find "courage and hope".
However, the virtual lover services have drawn criticism from some users.
Li Xiao, 21, from Shanghai, said she used the service when she broke up with her boyfriend, but the chat with her virtual boyfriend offered her no comfort.
"We just talked total nonsense about each other for an hour. He was nothing like a boyfriend for me and not romantic," Li said. "I feel very silly and embarrassed to have spent money on chatting with a stranger."
Li said she will not use online services again but will try to find a real relationship in her life.
Liang, the student, also said she quit the job after hearing some girls were approached to do video chatting with pornographic content.
Zhao Jialu, a teacher at Beijing University of Technology's Psychological Counseling Centre, said many of those who buy "love" online are born in the 1980s and 1990s after China's one-child policy was launched. They are often the only child at home and crave for attention as a result of the lack of siblings and friends.
Growing pressure to strike a work-life balance is also a key reason for people to use online love services, Zhao added.