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Tragedies of a Model Childhood

A video of a mother kicking her three-year-old daughter at a modeling shoot sparked public outrage, drawing attention to China’s poorly supervised child modeling industry

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

I’ll kick you to death. Don’t think I won’t. Pick up that basket and do not mess with me during a photo shoot,” a woman shouts at a girl, followed by a swift kick from behind that knocks her to the ground. In a Weibo post of this shocking video that went viral in April, the unnamed poster identified the girl as a three-year-old model nicknamed “Niuniu” on a photo shoot for an online vendor of children’s clothes, and the woman as her mother.  

The video triggered a fierce outcry across the country. As public pressure mounted, Niuniu’s mother soon posted a public apology on social media, claiming she has “never abused her daughter and has no intention of ever doing so.”  

The mother later told The Beijing News that she didn’t “kick hard” and only did so out of concern her daughter was “about to run onto a nearby road.”  

Netizens didn’t buy her explanation. Public anger further flared after two more videos surfaced of the mother hitting Niuniu on other photo shoots. In the first, the mother appears to hit Niuniu with a clothes hanger. The other shows the child receiving a slap on the head because she didn’t wave to the camera.  

Niuniu’s mother has since refused media interviews, but the videos have already drawn concerns over the exploitation of child models, particularly by their parents. As anger continued to foment, netizens and insiders posted about parents forcing their children to model for long hours – and often resorting to abuse to keep them working. Many on social media questioned how China’s existing labor laws apply to this growing industry and why they are failing to protect children from physical and mental abuse. 

Adult-Sized Paychecks
According to The Beijing News, Niuniu had been modeling for six months before the first video went viral. Her mother told the paper that Niuniu usually modeled between 20 and 30 outfits per photo shoot. However, a widely circulated screenshot of the mother’s WeChat Moments read that Niuniu had once modeled 400 outfits over four consecutive days. 

Niuniu is just one of hundreds of children working in Zhili, a manufacturing center for children’s clothing. The small town in Huzhou, East China’s Zhejiang Province is home to over 13,000 children’s clothing producers and distributors, more than half of China’s total, Huzhou Online reported in December.  

And the industry is growing. A report by Zhiyan Consulting Group showed a compound annual growth rate of 11.14 percent from 2012 to 2017, with market scale in 2017 rising to 179.6 billion yuan (US$26.1b), an increase of 14.3 percent compared to the previous year.  

Child models are increasingly in demand, luring parents like Niuniu’s mother to move to Zhili.  In a previous interview, Niuniu’s mother denied she was using Niuniu to make money and that her husband is working to support the family. But netizens had their doubts.  

“One of the most popular models at my company, Kim (pseudonym), earns 8,000-20,000 yuan (US$1,160-2,900) a day,” Hu Ling (pseudonym), a designer and employee with a children’s clothing producer in Shanghai who often works in Zhili, told NewsChina. 

Kim, Hu explained, is the son of a single Chinese mother. His father was a foreign student in China who has since left the country. Kim’s paychecks have enabled the mother and son to have a much better life than many other single-parent families.  

However, these paychecks come at a price. According to social media news outlet GQ Report, Gu Ge, a popular 10-year-old model in Zhili, once modeled 264 outfits from 9am to 2am. She earned 31,680 yuan (US$4591) for a 17-hour day.  

While not revealing exact numbers, some parents were quick to admit their child’s salaries were more than enough to comfortably support a family. Gu’s mother, for example, told the outlet her child’s modeling has enabled her to quit her job as an apple vendor.  

“No job earns more money [than child modeling],” Xi Bei, a mother of two child models in Zhili, told GQ Report, “Although it’s short-term, it brings in enough money to completely support an ordinary person,” she added.  

Average rents in Zhili are on the rise as hopeful parents continue to flood the town with kids in tow. Most are full-time stage mothers: women who quit their jobs back home to work as their kids’ agents. If things go well, some will move the rest of the family to Zhili to help with all the driving, cooking and other necessary logistics. 

“Both parents and kids have to put in a lot for this job,” a mother of a child model in Zhili told NewsChina. She requested not to be named. “Whether kids can make it in the industry depends on how strong their parents are. Anyone who has determined to lead their kids on this road is likely to earn big money,” she said.  

Alleged Abuse 
The boom in Zhili has also given rise to a number of modeling schools promising to turn ordinary kids into lens-ready professionals.  

Although the job largely depends on looks, some parents sign up kids to training schools as young as several months old in the hopes they’ll soon become big money makers. 

“Poor child models. Ninety-nine percent of them are like money machines under their parents’ whips,” an employee at a photography studio using the handle “Jiuyueque” commented on zhihu.com, a Quora-like question and answer site.   

“It is very hard to get a little kid to work well in front of the lens, so the easiest and most direct solution is to use violence,” he added.  

Hu said she doesn’t see parents using physical abuse with the models at her company. Instead, bribery is more common. For example, Kim’s mother would buy him piles of his favorite toys and foods, including junk food.  

Many parents allow their kids to watch cartoons while on shoots, even holding iPads or mobile phones for them as they pose.  

Modeling is not only hard on the children. In her widely circulated WeChat screenshot, Niuniu’s mother complained of exhaustion after a 119-outfit photo shoot. She also claimed she kicked Niuniu because she was too tired to control her temper.  

“It is usual that some parents to use violence on kids that don’t perform well or aren’t in the mood to work and cause delays, because we all can’t afford to wait,” Hu said.  

Time is money on a photo shoot, and kids who cause delays on-set risk being labeled as unprofessional and inefficient. A bad reputation can be a career killer, especially since the number of child models is outweighing demand in Zhili, Chinese media reported. 

To remain competitive, parent-agents are bringing down their prices and pushing their kids to work longer hours. Even popular models like 10-year-old Gu Ge said she doesn’t dare upset clothing retailers and photographers.  

Kids end up sacrificing their futures for what are mostly short-term gains. Gu starts her modeling jobs after school that often go on until midnight. She does homework during the little downtime she has, often while still in makeup. Kim’s mother refuses to enroll her son, now seven, in school so he can be more available for work. 

“Child modeling is a fleeting career,” Hu said. “It values cuteness and prefers children below 100 centimeters tall. I’ve heard of parents even feeding their kids with anti-growth drugs to extend their careers, while others would have a second baby just to continue modeling when their older one ages out. It’s so crazy!” Hu said.  

Often, it’s difficult to tell whether abuse is occurring because everything seems picture perfect on the surface, Hu explained. 

“Many children seem very happy taking photos and their parents are very nice and gentle with them,” she said.  

“However, kids aren’t capable of looking out for their futures. Take Kim as an example – his mother is very nice to him and buys him anything he wants… But I cannot understand her not sending Kim to school. What will he do in the future?” she added.  

A child model on the catwalk in Xiangyang, Hubei Province, June 23, 2018

Lax Supervision
Much of the abuse and withholding children from school goes unreported. “Nobody wants to meddle in other people’s business. Why should we care about that when even Kim’s biological mother doesn’t?” Hu said.  

Following the Niuniu scandal, many parents in the business made it a point to keep out of the media spotlight.  

Many criticized Gu Ge’s mother, for example, for agreeing to the GQ Report interview. In follow-up reports, undercover journalists with the Qianjiang Evening News, a Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province newspaper, were forced to hand over their phones before being allowed on a photo shoot in Zhili. Niuniu’s mother declined an interview with NewsChina, while Hu refused to introduce Kim’s mother to our reporter.  

According to GQ Report, most parents declined to speak with the press for fear of accusations of child labor abuses.  

According to China’s Labor Law, it is illegal to employ children under 16 years old. However, children working in the arts and athletics are exceptions, and employers only need permission from the child’s guardian and authorities.  

Child modeling falls in the “arts” gray area.  

Also, most employers skip legal formalities, especially since local authorities often turn a blind eye as long as a parent provides consent and is present on-set.  

Worse still, contracts are rarely signed, leaving children even more vulnerable. “A [legal] labor relationship cannot be established without a contract. Also, parents are not employers of their children in legal terms,” Zhang Haoran, a lawyer at Shanghai-based Qinbing Law Firm, told NewsChina.  

“China’s [civil] law actually has stipulations for child labor, such as the ownership and use of earnings, but they all depend on the premise of a labor contract,” he added.  

The industry appears to be responding to public pressure. Many brands that have worked with Niuniu in the past have since removed her photos from their online stores. On April 11, 110 children’s clothing vendors on Taobao, China’s biggest C2C shopping platform, released a joint statement declaring their zero-tolerance policy for violence in child modeling and pledged to start a “program to reduce the use of child models and limit their work time.” 

However, after visiting Zhili at the end of April, Hu told NewsChina that it was still business as usual. “I don’t see anything different,” she said, adding she didn’t know of anyone promoting the program mentioned in the statement.  

“My company did not receive such a letter or a call to join the program. I’m not sure whether others are running the program privately, but I doubt its effect. I think people will quickly lose interest as the news cools,” she said.  “This industry cannot depend only on parents and merchants to supervise themselves,” she added.