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During a date, he declared “Mao is a dictator,” Xu recalled.

It was interesting at first for Xu to learn about Spanish culture from her ex-boyfriend, she said, especially after feeling she had nothing to talk about with Chinese guys in her age because “everything is familiar.” But the remark about China’s former leader, Mao Zedong, was too alien, she said. She’s not happy about the word “dictator,” because that makes Mao the equivalent to Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, Xu explained.

Unlike some other young couples, Jean said, they talked a lot about serious topics, including Chinese politics.

“I wondered how he thought as a foreigner,” she said, and her ex wanted to know the same.

She met him at a party, and developed feelings for him after learning he had carried out missions in Afghanistan. Sally ended the relationship, and started a new one with a Swedish citizen who is ethnically Chinese after she moved back to Shanghai.

When she told her father about the German, his response was “Be careful, he may be a spy.” She found later there was absolutely nothing to worry about, as the German showed little knowledge about China. He’s interested in China’s recent history and hopes to discuss it with Sally.

Her boyfriend is always reading some “banned stuff” on the internet, she said, and then recklessly talking about it on the street in Shanghai. The “banned stuff” includes the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, and violence in Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, topics which are heavily censored by the Great Firewall.

To read information about these topics from outside China’s borders, her boyfriend need to use a VPN service.

Every weekend, the parents of Shanghai’s unmarried population gather to find potential partners for their adult children.

Lining the walkways of Shanghai’s People’s Square, they post their offspring’s details on open umbrellas —height, weight, education, and occupation— hoping to attract the parents of other singles.

Once a potential match has been found, the marriage negotiations begin.