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China relaxes ban on beauty contests

Beijing, Dec. 6: Until this year beauty pageants were banned in China, and last year’s Miss China contest was even broken up by police. But all that is changing.

Now the Miss World competition on the tropical Chinese island of Hainan was broadcast live by state television. Winners of beauty contests are becoming national celebrities, gracing the covers of party-run newspapers and magazines.

“Who doesn’t care about beauty nowadays'” asks Luo Zhaoxian, a 23-year-old Avon lady in her small franchise on Xiao Jie, a street dividing modern flats from a picturesque old quarter of narrow alleyways. “Almost no one,” would be the short answer.

Cosmetics shops and beauty salons line the streets of China’s cities. Beauty pageants abound. For young women they are a respectable, even enviable way to get ahead in a fiercely materialistic society where official routes to the top are a minefield of Communist Party connections and old-fashioned hard struggle.

Together with the growth in cosmetic sales — up 25 per cent a year — and readily available plastic surgery, they are signs of a social revolution in a country for which such things were once an indicator of western decadence. Jiang Xinrong, a student at an elite college, won a Miss China contest run this year by Phoenix TV, a station based in Hong Kong but widely available on the mainland. She acknowledges it might be seen as odd for her to take part in such a contest — she is one of 50 in her year at Beijing Broadcasting University, chosen from 10,000 applicants.

But she adopts the mantra of beauty contestants everywhere — it is not just about looks, it is about character as well. More importantly, she has heard that the company is using it to scout for presenting talent. “It’s true they have offered me a job,” she says. “And the contest has made me aware of other possibilities. In the end I might want to do charity work.”

As with other examples of liberalisation in China, it is not clear how permanent the government’s relaxed attitude is. The All China Women’s Federation, the mouthpiece of the party on women’s issues, says it has watched the Miss World contest closely.

When modelling competitions first appeared, it adopted a policy of the Four Noes, said its propaganda director, Wang Naikun — not to encourage, organise, support, or be involved in them.

But it is not hostile, so long, at least, as there is still some element of talent involved, as well as looks.

Wang acknowledged the oft-heard accusation that young Chinese are more materialistic and shallow than their predecessors, though she does not accept one reason given — that shallow is safer for the government than political.

“Of course, I would like to see a time when Chinese women can rise strictly according to their own merits,” she said.

Wang herself has an 18-year-old daughter who, she is proud to say, would not get involved in such contests herself. She is going to college to study construction engineering.

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