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Glamour gets go-ahead
( 2003-10-31 09:27) (Shanghai Star)

After a 54-year absence, beauty contests are making a comeback in China now that the government has finally lifted its ban on such pageants.

It seems that the government's attitude has changed almost overnight.

Last year the Miss China contest was still an underground competition, raided by police half-way through for not having the permits required for cultural events.

Yet this year the country made a 180-degree turn, announcing that China will host the 2003 Miss World pageant in Sanya, South China's Hainan Province, making it the first international beauty contest to be held in China.

A strong signal is being communicated that beauty contests, once regarded as bourgeois, have finally got the green light in the country.

Liu Zhaojia, senior consultant from the Hong Kong Central Policy Unit, compared the lifting of the ban to a milestone extension of the mainland's reform and opening up policy, from the previous freed political and economical activities to cultural and social events.

With the long-asserted pressure lifted, different kinds of pageants have begun springing-up flamboyantly.

In Shanghai, a contest titled Miss Shanghai has already staged its quarter-final rounds. In Beijing and some other big cities the selection process for Miss China candidates are also being vigorously conducted.

Low-key advance

"Although the city didn't lack surreptitious beauty contests over the past five decades, taking the form of modelling contests for instance, or selections for various 'image ambassadors', this is the first time the title of Miss Shanghai has been used," said Jiang Heng, from the organizing committee of the current beauty contest.

Li Bing, the third place winner of the 53th Miss World pageant.
However, although the government seems to have nodded to pageants, the long-term suppression of the activity has still kept most of the ongoing beauty contests in China relatively discreet.

"Some officials are still nervous about approving such events, arguing that compared with modelling - which involves skills - it is bourgeois, and represents private interests," Jiang said.

Since officials are nervous, the organizers certainly have reason to avoid making the pageants too large or provocative.

Take the current Miss Shanghai contest for example. Although it has the Shanghai Charity Foundation and the World Expo 2010 Shanghai Bidding Office as its main sponsors - both with a degree of governmental background - the organizers remain reluctant to give much publicity to the event.

Even the co-sponsoring media, like the Xinmin Evening News and the Shanghai Evening Post, have only provided modest coverage.

Compared with Miss Hong Kong, which keeps the local media busy from the beginning to the end, the pageant in Shanghai is a little dull. Yet historically, the pre-liberation Miss Shanghai contests used to add much excitement to the city, as depicted in many old Shanghai books.

"Anyway it is still a great breakthrough," said Mini Ai, a reporter from the Shanghai Youth Daily.

"In the past when we were invited to report on the contests for image ambassadors, which were very similar to beauty competitions, the organizers would keep re-emphasizing that their contest was not a beauty contest."

Eager to demonstrate that such pageants are harmless to the still cautious leadership, organizers for the Miss Shanghai contest have ensured the girls promoted a host of charity causes, including visiting an orphanage and distributing milk to seniors.

The women were carefully chosen not only for their looks, but also for their education level.

Of the 20 contestants, 17 have received university or college education.

"It's not just a beauty contest,'' said Hu Nan, deputy director of the organizing committee.

"It's a very sunny and healthy competition. Through the contest We are trying to establish role models for local women."

Lessened criticism

Yet no matter how much the organizers stress the healthy moral tone of the competition, those opposing the pageants are also not hard to find.

The small number of women entering the competition may be taken as one indication of the widespread doubts.

In Shanghai only about 200 people have entered themselves for the contest - a small figure given the city's 6.5 million population of women.

Many women were frightened away when they discovered more than a month of intensive training was required before the final contest.

"I can't afford to spend so much time. Even if I won, what would I really earn apart from the title?" said Alice Xu, a university student.

Traditional public opinion against such pageants is also making women hesitate.

"Profiting solely from one's looks is not a good thing," said Song Xiaoguan, a middle-aged local woman.

As in many other countries, women's organizations are usually the strongest opposition forces.

Early in 1994, the China Women's Federation officially stated that it opposed beauty contests, which it declared to be products of a male-dominated society.

Yet recently, the attitude of the federation has softened. A spokeswoman from the Federation said that while still opposed to tasteless pageants focusing purely on women's appearance, it wasn't opposed in principle to those which also took the bearing, education and attitudes of contestants into account.

"The latter should even be advocated, since they could help encourage women to actively improve themselves," said Deng Weizhi, a famous sociologist from the Shanghai Social Sciences Academy.

The fact that even feminists are taking a softer line on beauty pageants, suggests the future of this lucrative business could be bright in China.

Statistics show that the Miss World Contest can bring the host region revenues of some US$120 million, contributing substantially to tourism.

However, the initial steps are important.

At a press conference held not long ago at the Va Bene restaurant, Hu Nan, from the organizing committee, revealed that the judges for Miss Shanghai would mainly focus on three aspects, firstly the contestants' attitudes, then their appearance and finally their abilities.

"It may have taken some time for the organizers to arrive at the point as about how much the appearance should influence the final judge, so as not to upset sensitive public opinions about these events in China," joked a business insider.

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