Visitors to an auto show in central Wuhan City were shocked to see a five-year-old girl wearing only a bikini and a wig blowing them a kiss while her other hand gently caressed a car.
She was one of three child models, aged four to five, wearing bikinis and striking "sexy" poses at the auto exhibition in the Hubei Province capital last Friday.
The display may have been an attempt to amuse visitors bored with the usual array of scantily-clad young women but instead the overwhelming reaction was one of outrage.
Tens of thousands of netizens expressed their fury at the girls' parents and show organizers for "being willing to ruin their children's lives for money" and "attracting public attention by crossing the moral red line."
In a set of photos and a video recording, the three bikini girls are seen posing with other adult models. In one picture, a girl is seen trying to mimic a "sexy" pose by bending over while holding a car's rearview mirror.
The photos and the video spread like wildfire on the Internet, stirring huge waves of controversy.
"Now even little girls have fallen victims to businessmen's pursuit of profit," was one online comment.
Another netizen asked: "What kind of evil minds are driving the parents and the organizers to dress the children in bikinis just to attract more eyes and satisfy pedophiles? And to those who filmed and pictured them, where is their conscience?"
In a poll on Weibo.com, more than 11,700 people said the show should never have used the children as bikini models.
However, 979 people supported the show by agreeing it should introduce some new ideas.
One of the show's organizers, a woman surnamed Liu, told the Chutian Golden Newspaper that they wanted to provide a platform for the child models to "boost their confidence" and the performances were agreed to by all of their parents. Besides the three bikini models, two other girls presented Latin dance, she said.
Liu said that the girls presented the bikini show as part of a child model competition in which the winners could win free trips to Hong Kong and Macau. No money had been paid to the parents.
A woman surnamed Li, mother of one of the models, told the newspaper she sent her daughter to the show to help her gain confidence but now, having seen the reaction, deeply regretted her decision.
"I would never let my daughter read those online comments and I hope she still believed that it was a beautiful show. But I will never send her to such activities again," Li said.
Another of the mothers said she felt upset when reading the online comments as she felt there was nothing wrong in what the children were doing. The country doesn't ban parents from dressing their children in bikinis, she said.
Modelling was a perfectly healthy activity, she said, and suggested that netizens had "got the wrong idea."
However, some experts quoted by the newspaper said such performances could have a negative effect on the children by teaching them they could make money by exposing themselves.