The men of Tube Crush, a British site featuring images of attractive men secretly photographed on the London Underground, were surprised this week to discover that they're a big hit in China. On Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, images of 'British Gentleman' are being liked and shared over 100,000 times. One Weibo user even declared: "I want to take the Tube everyday!" China has over 632 million internet users - more than double the population of the US - and its power is huge, think Twitter times a hundred.
Newspapers in the UK have quickly seized the story under headlines suggesting Chinese women want British men. But is this the case? As the author of the recently published Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, I have asked this question to many Chinese women, namely what do they want in a man, and the answers are more complicated than we like to think.
The most common cliché about what Chinese women want is money, a house and a car. In 2010, a contestant on the popular Chinese dating show If You Are The One declared that she would "rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle." Since then her words have been taken as gospel and cited frequently as evidence that Chinese women are materialistic when it comes to love.
Enter the British men of the London Underground. With their sharpened suits and iPhones in hand, they look every bit like a Chinese girl's dream. Part of this attraction is their evocation of wealth and fashion. Then add in the Brit factor. The Chinese have a soft spot for anything British - Sherlock - the star of which, Benedict Cumberbatch, is affectionately referred to as 'Curly Fu' because of his hair, Downton, Prince William - they're all big hits in China. This fascination is partly fueled by a growing awareness of class, which is creeping into the Chinese consciousness. The UK is held up as an example to follow, as people in China assume art imitates life in the UK. More than just pretty faces, the men on the Tube therefore symbolise Chinese social aspirations. They're automatically elevated to 'gentleman status' and Chinese women swoon.
But as easy as it is to generalise about Chinese women, it's the truth not captured by these headlines that allows people to understand China and its society better. Some Chinese women do want British men: In 1978 there was not a single inter-racial marriage registered in mainland China; skip forward to 2012 and 53,000 mixed couples married that year alone.
As well, there are many important reasons Chinese women want wealthy men. Gong Haiyan, the founder of China's biggest dating, Jiayuan, said that height, salary and home ownership are the most frequently selected criteria for a male mate. For women leaving families thousands of miles behind in the Chinese countryside to work in Shanghai or Beijing, money is a necessity, not a sign of shallow materialism.
Chinese women's desires are fueled by a mix of pragmatism and romance, which leads on to those who don't want any of this: China has more young people than any country on earth, and as I met and talked to teenagers and twenty somethings about their desires, I even found a feminist backlash against the trend of dating foreign men. Take for example Gia W, the poster girl of China's punk scene and lead singer of Hang On The Box. She has penned plenty of songs mocking mixed relationships. Lyrics from one of her most infamous go: "What is Shanghai? Rich white cock and hungry yellow chick."
And just as some Chinese girls appreciate British men from afar, they're making louder cat calls for their own. In January, a student at Peking University student, Wei Xiaolong, received the Tube Crush treatment when photos secretly taken of him in the library went viral. He was nicknamed "the [male] god of Peking University", with some female netizens chanting the slogan "I'm going to the library, don't try and stop me." So it's not just Brits who are a hit online. In some ways these internet sensations are a sign of a major modern Chinese problem - loneliness. Young people grow up without siblings, due to the one-child policy, and the pressure to marry means dating can be difficult.
Tube Crush has managed to avoid Chinese censors so far, which is no small feat. With China's current leader Xi Jinping's ongoing pledged to "clean up" the internet, content deemed objectionable is constantly blocked, ranging from Gmail to porn. Mild flirting is about as risqué as it goes online right now, and people don't want to miss this opportunity to chat with their peers and form their online identities.
As the new internet generation grows, China will change, but it won't be on our terms - even if they like our style.