How China fell for Miss World

Mao Zedong banned beauty pageants. Now they're all the rage in a country that believes they can enhance its image

Mao Zedong banned beauty pageants. Now they're all the rage in a country that believes they can enhance its image. Mark Godfrey reports from Beijing.

Chen Lili, a transsexual, was disqualified from the provincial heats of China's Miss Universe selection competition even though, according to the Shanghai Morning Post, she "seemed to outshine all the beauty queens onstage". Chen, a successful model, was known as Chen Yongjin, or Brave Soldier, before she had a sex-change operation in November.

A few years ago it would have been difficult to imagine Chen's photograph appearing in a national newspaper, even less her participating in a televised beauty pageant. But she has become simply a more colourful player in China's vast cast of beauty-queen wannabes.

In the middle of the last century Mao Zedong dismissed beauty pageants as bourgeois nonsense; having declared that their participants were "lacking in self- respect", he banned such frivolity. As recently as 1993, according to a newspaper report that resurfaced good-humouredly during last year's Miss World finals in the island province of Hainan, when Rosanna Davison emerged victorious, a group of Peking University graduates dutifully refused to participate in a pageant tentatively organised by a local businessman.


All that has changed. Chinese students now queue to enter beauty shows run by television stations with prize money that often reaches a million yuan (almost €100,000). "The Miss World event is symptomatic of the current beauty craze and just a more hyped version of the endless model shows on local TV. It's symbolic of a new level of vanity in Chinese culture," says Paul French of Access Asia, a market-intelligence firm that collects data on trends in the cosmetics industry.Unfailingly trendy, young Chinese women see beauty pageants as springboards to careers in show business or fashion.

Not all are so enthusiastic, however. Wu Xiaoying, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes China's embrace of beauty pageants is propelled by commercial interests. "Beauty contests make women ornaments and objects of utilitarian purposes. They often become just a medium of exchange in business and promotion." Official China used to agree with Wu. But today the professed goal of Hu Jintao, China's president, is "prosperity in an all-round way", and a free-market economy is the chosen method.

So although in 2002 police raided the qualification heats of Miss China, less than a year later the government had announced that the country would host the finals of Miss World 2003. The chance to advertise China to a world audience and bask in the glow of an international event was too good to pass. A flood of pageants followed the government's announcement. Beauty competitions have since become reliable fodder for China's magazines, newspapers and television stations.

Most of the pageants are televised, fuelled by healthy advertising. Many of the advertisers are cosmetics firms. China's cosmetics market is worth 14 billion yuan (€1.3 billion) a year, according to the China Association of Fragrance, Flavour & Cosmetics Industry. The state-run body estimates that the Chinese spent 46 billion yuan (€4.5 billion) on cosmetics last year - and it predicts that the market will grow by between 9 and 11 per cent between 2003 and 2006.

"Flower boards", or pageants of prostitutes, were common during the Sung dynasty, in the 11th and 12th centuries. Beauty contests first resurfaced in 1989 in the prosperous southern city of Guangzhou, under the billing "Beauty in Flower City". It wasn't until 2001, however, that China sent a representative to the Miss World finals. Before pageants became part of state development policy, beauty shows in the recent past took the form of model competitions and shows to select "image ambassadors" for cities and provinces. Prior to Mao's establishment of the People's Republic of China, in 1949, Miss Shanghai generated much buzz in China's commercial capital. Similar enthusiasm surrounded the annual Miss Hong Kong event, staged since 1946. In China, where karaoke, mawkish pop music, kitsch, glitter and melodramatic sitcoms are accepted good taste on evening television, beauty pageants would appear to have found a natural home.

Miss Globe, Miss International and Miss Universe are all scheduled to be staged in China in the next few years, and the Miss China franchise has signed a sponsorship deal with Rupert Murdoch's Hong-Kong based Phoenix TV. Lesser-known contests such as China World Model Competition and International Advertising Model have all signed lucrative local deals. The finals of Miss Tourism International will be held in the south-eastern city of Hangzhou, near Shanghai, this year.

Zhang Jingxuan, vice general manager of CITIC, the state-run entertainment agency handling this October's Miss International world final, in Beijing, says: "We promise to make it the biggest one and hope it can move its home to China for ever." Determined to make a splash, CITIC has hired Chen Kaige, a successful film director, as its artistic director.

With the floodgates opened, local pageant organisers have adroitly placated still-nervous government officials by adding a charitable dimension to the competition, having competitors visit orphanages and distribute free milk to the elderly. "It's not just a beauty contest," says Hu Nan, deputy chief organiser of this year's Miss Shanghai competition. "It's a very sunny, healthy competition. We are trying to establish role models for local women." Seventeen of the 20 competitors in last year's final, Hu stresses, were university students or had third-level qualifications.

China's National Women's Federation, the country's state-controlled women's rights group, in 1994 condemned beauty pageants, denouncing them as relics of male-dominated societies. In a statement welcoming the Miss World finals, however, the federation said that although it opposed beauty pageants that focus solely on physical beauty it supported those in which "education, bearing and attitudes" are also taken into account. "In the past contests were just for staring at women's faces and breasts. That's why we thought they were disgusting."

Seventy per cent of respondents to an Internet survey last year welcomed the Miss World event to China. The financial reasoning behind China's enthusiasm for beauty pageants is easy to work out. Government figures put the return on the $3 million (€2.4 million) paid for the rights to stage Miss World at $120 million (€97 million) in increased tourism revenue alone. "The event brought admiration and respect for China's image and economic development from the world," says Shao Zhong, a Hong Kong newspaper columnist and a member of the evaluating committee that oversaw the competition.

Cosmetics makers are perhaps the biggest winners from China's beauty craze. Nu Skin, the US-owned cosmetics firm, is predicting a doubling of net sales returns this year, according to Corey Lindley, president of the company's China operations. Zhang Jun, a Beijing-based promoter for Amway, the US direct-selling healthcare firm, claims he earns upwards of 8,000 yuan (€780) a month, a huge amount by local standards. University students also make healthy salaries from commission, says the 25-year-old, who has been marketing cosmetics and toiletries for Amway, one of the largest players in China's cosmetics market, for more than a year.

His bestsellers are skin-whitening cream and lipstick. The Chinese ideal of beauty places a high premium on pale skin. Whitening processes are regularly advertised on the fronts of the beauty parlours that are ubiquitous in Chinese cities. More worrying, perhaps, cosmetic surgery has become an option for many middle-class Chinese. Clinics have sprung up to meet demand, but newspapers regularly report horrendous cases of unqualified surgeons and backstreet surgery inflicting terrible damage.

With Miss World reportedly considering a return to China this year, and several other international beauty pageants to oversee, usually strait-laced local commentators have been urging the government to secure China's place in the world beauty-pageant industry.

In a recent edition of the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, its columnist Gao Lanrong wrote: "Governments and enterprises should learn more about and improve the operation system of pageants for a healthy, orderly development of pageants and beauty economy in China."

Chen Lili, meanwhile, has taken the abrupt end to her beauty-pageant career in her stride, concentrating now on modelling and on a possible career in pop music. She celebrated her first International Women's Day as a woman this year by doing all the things she says women like to do. "I went shopping, went to a spa and had a facial." But, she insists, she dreams of becoming Miss China.