China is cracking down on child modeling after a video showed a mom kicking her toddler

Too young to strut.
Too young to strut.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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After a video circulated in April of a mother physically punishing her three-year-old child-model daughter, authorities in China are clamping down on the industry.

The video, which was posted to social network Weibo, showed the mother kicking her daughter, Niuniu, as she was modeling clothes for online retailers. Another clip (link in Chinese) showed the woman shouting at the toddler and hitting her with a clothes hanger as she stood against a wall in a dressing room.

The footage, taken in the city of Hangzhou, has sparked a conversation in China over whether there are sufficient protections for children in an industry that is rapidly growing alongside a boom in e-commerce in recent years, and which brings considerable income for parents. For example, Guge, a popular 10-year-old child model (link in Chinese), can earn some 30,000 yuan ($4,400) per day by charging 120 yuan per outfit modeled.

In addition to physical abuse, there are also growing concerns about whether the boom in child modeling is affecting children’s abilities to attend school. In the case of Guge, it isn’t uncommon for her to be shooting from 9am to 2am some days to earn a few thousand dollars, GQ reported in April (link in Chinese). There has also been criticism of the practice of using children to model bikinis, for example at a car show (link in Chinese) in Wuhan in 2012.

Responding to the video of Niuniu, the prosecutor in a district of Hangzhou rolled out regulations (link in Chinese) this week that forbid children under 10 from endorsing brands. Firms also can’t use the same child model to the extent that it leads to truancy from school; use child models continuously for over four hours; force children to wear unsuitable clothing or perform any acts deemed unsuitable for the child’s age, or impose any kind of physical or mental abuse. Violators will be prosecuted, though the prosecutor did not elaborate on the punishment. The regulations are the first of its kind specifically relating to child modeling in China. Earlier laws forbid companies from hiring minors under 16 at all, but child models often circumvented the rules by being paid in cash without formal contracts.

Hangzhou is one of the major centers for e-commerce as it is home to the headquarters of online retailers such as Alibaba. It’s also a key garment manufacturing hub, with training centers for child models popping up in towns like Zhili, where there are around 13,000 companies making children’s clothes.

Soon after the video of Niuniu went viral, more than 100 online retailers said they would scale back the use of child models, and implemented self-regulating rules including limiting shooting time (link in Chinese).

Niuniu’s mother apologized on Weibo immediately after the video went public, saying she wasn’t trying to harm Niuniu and described the kick as “a slightly exaggerated movement.” She also told a local broadcaster (link in Chinese) that it was the only time that she had kicked Niuniu and that she was mentally tired. In another recent incident, a mother in Hangzhou physically punished her four-year-old (link in Chinese) after he wet himself during a shoot last month.