China child models strut into controversyCity talk | Xin Liu and Pak Yiu 13 Aug 2019
Manicured kids strut along the catwalk at a Beijing fashion show, one of thousands of events driving huge demand for child models in China that insiders warn leaves minors vulnerable to physical abuse, 12-hour days and unrelenting pressure from pushy parents.
The kids' apparel market is growing faster than any other clothing sector in the country and was worth more than US$40.5 billion (HK$315 billion) in 2018 according to Euromonitor.
This combined with the rise of "kidfluencers" sponsored by brands to promote products online is spurring greater demand for young models, but experts warn of the price of chasing deals. "If children don't listen to parents then hitting them is quite standard," says Lee Ku, founder of Le Show Stars modeling school.
A video of a mother kicking her three-year-old daughter in fury at her failure to comply during a modeling job went viral this year. And footage has just emerged of a young boy modeling thick winter clothes outside as temperatures soared to 37 degrees Celsius.
But in an industry where minors can earn 10,000 yuan (HK$11,130) a session, Lee says the clip is the tip of the iceberg and that from his experience violent behavior by parents is not unusual on shoots.
Child models sometimes go through more than 100 outfit changes in a session, often working from morning until night.
But mental health experts warn it is not just physical exhaustion they have to contend with - there may be long-term emotional implications.
"Children up to the age of six are developing mentally and need a lot of exploration and freedom," explains child psychologist Gong Xueping. "At work, the child model will deliberately show a lot of different expressions, but this is contrary to the child's own feelings of the moment. This limits the development of emotional abilities and more complex psychological abilities for children, so it's a very bad choice."
But there remains no shortage of parents ready to push their children into the business.
Founded three years ago, Le Show Stars was one of the first modeling schools in Beijing, where customers pay up to 800 yuan for one-on-one lessons. Four-year-old twins Yumi and Yuki Xiao are not yet professional models, but for nearly two years they have been in classes on how to pose and pace the catwalk.
"For some catwalk competitions they have to be in the makeup room by 6am," says their father, Xiao Liang. "The competition starts at 2pm and they finish around 3-4pm."
Their parents take them around China to modeling competitions. "It's a lot of fun - I like being on stage," insists Yumi.
Like many parents, Xiao says he initially enrolled the two in child modeling to build their self-confidence.
But after Yumi and Yuki showed interest they started to invest more time and money into building a possible modeling career path for them.
Occasionally, the twins are paid to model seasonal fashion lines for big brands.
"I think they are one of a kind boy-girl twins," Xiao says proudly. "They also like it, which is why we give them this opportunity."
China's laws on child labor are complicated, and parents of underage models are sometimes paid in secret to sidestep employment rules.
Responding to the kicking video, Hangzhou authorities introduced regulations to limit the hours children work and ban children under 10 from being brand spokespeople.
Many feel authorities are doing too little to protect kids from exploitation, though more than 110 child-geared retailers on e-commerce giant Taobao say they are ready to scale back on use of young models and back more regulations.
Thousands have debated the topic online, calling for rules to be tightened to prevent abuse.
"Child modeling is no different from child labor," a Weibo user says. "Short childhoods are lost making money for parents."