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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 00:08 GMT
China warms to Miss World

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

For a country that used to frown on women even wearing makeup, let alone showing off their bodies for prizes, China is stepping out into the international beauty contest arena with quite a swagger.

As first-time host to the Miss World pageant, it is hoping that a foreign television audience even bigger than its own 1.3 billion population will be as wowed by the charms of China as by those of the contestants.

Contestants at Great Wall
Hosting Miss World will broaden China's horizons, say organisers

As with the Olympics in five years' time, China hopes to gain not only financial rewards from investment and tourism but also the kind of kudos and camaraderie it craves as an accepted, fully-fledged member of the world community.

And if some of the more established members of that community look askance at the whole idea of beauty pageants these days, Beijing's communist leadership might say that just shows how out of touch they are with the masses - both in China and through much of the developing world.

Beauty queens from a record 106 countries have been parading before the cameras in recent days at historic sites and beauty spots across the country.

They wrapped themselves in fur coats on a snowy Great Wall that once served to keep out foreigners - no matter how good-looking.

Now they have unpacked their swimsuits on the southern tropical island of Hainan as they prepare to vie for this year's crown in the resort town of Sanya on December 6.

Beauty-craze

A BBC straw poll on the streets of Beijing shows a high level of approval for the show, which for the first time is being shown on national state television.

Miss Wang, an administrative assistant in her thirties, believes hosting Miss World is a great opportunity for China.

"People from every country will come here. China is so big, everyone needs to learn more about us".

Asked if she herself will watch it, she says yes. "Everyone needs beauty".

Miss Guan, a designer in her twenties, agrees:

"We are paying a lot of attention to this contest. Beauty is art. Everybody loves it."

"I would like to see the clothes and hats and shoes from around the world," says Mr Li, a middle-aged trader - revealing tastes that are perhaps closer to those of China's new, market-oriented communist party than those of the average male beauty contest fan.

Until recently, beauty pageants were banned in China as heretical displays of exploitation and decadence.

But the explosion of economic growth and the loosening of social controls of the past few years has led to a growing preoccupation with how people look.

Miss China (Guan Qi) and the current Miss World (Azra Akin of Turkey)
A global concept of beauty is part of China's thriving consumer culture
Fashion show catwalks have sprung up in shopping malls and Western designer labels are everywhere.

If Chinese men have traditionally regarded Western women as ugly, there are signs of changing norms of attractiveness.

Fuelled by a surge of imports of Western films, consumer goods and technology, there is a high demand among Chinese girls for breast enlargements and cosmetic surgery to make their noses and eyes accord with Western ideals.

The British company that runs the Miss World business says holding the pageant in China is good for both sides.

"It is a way of broadening China's horizons and giving the Chinese public a look at the Western way of life", a spokesman told BBC News Online.

It was China that chose Miss World and not the other way round, he said. He refused to confirm the reported 6m fee paid by municipal authorities and local firms in Hainan for the right to stage the contest.

A faraway beach

The island is now being promoted as "China's Hawaii" - but Hainan was traditionally reviled as a place of exile for banished officials and is known today for its corruption and prostitution as much as its beaches.

Its huge distance from the capital may be one reason Beijing has given it the go-ahead - there are still suggestions of official uncertainty about the political correctness of promoting a glamour contest.

A "beach party" will feature as part of the main televised broadcast, but there will be no live swimwear parade on stage.

Copyright  R.C Hunt
In Mao's day beauty pageants were condemned as decadent and bourgeois
"I don't know whether the Chinese Communist Party and the central government are supporting the Miss World contest or simply declining to prohibit it", says Bonnie S. McDougall, Professor of Chinese at the University of Edinburgh. "Any move towards greater personal freedom in China is a positive step," she says.

But there should be greater recognition, she believes, of the commonly held view that beauty contests are morally or socially repugnant.

"At the very least, they should be offset by vigorous measures against increasing levels of domestic violence and trafficking in women and children."

A beauty epidemic is infecting the nation
China Daily
When pressed for comment, Chinese officials have said beauty contests should be about character as much as appearance, recalling the importance given in traditional Chinese culture to "inner beauty".

Fortunately this tallies well with the "beauty with a purpose" slogan brandished by the Miss World company, which is anxious to forget about the horrors of last year's contest in Nigeria.

More than 200 people died in riots after a journalist wrote in a Lagos newspaper that the Prophet Mohammed might have approved of the contest and even chosen to marry one of the entrants.

Protests in China are unlikely, given the tight controls on dissent and the media.

There is no doubting the enthusiasm of the state-run press. The once-puritanical communist party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, welcomed the pageant and the "carnival atmosphere and changing social practices" it had brought with it.

"There's a beauty epidemic and it's infecting the nation," added the China Daily exultantly.

"The Chinese are brave enough to say: 'Yes, I love her, just because she's beautiful', " Zhao Xiaoyang, a Beijing professor of aesthetics, told the paper. "That's great progress."


SEE ALSO:
Miss World goes for makeover
07 Dec 02 |  UK News
China chosen for Miss World pageant
10 Dec 02 |  Asia-Pacific
China unveils Olympic logo
03 Aug 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Chinese woman seeks perfect beauty
24 Jul 03 |  Asia-Pacific


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