A company that featured bikini-clad child models as young as five years old at a Chinese car show sought Wednesday to defuse the controversy but also defended its actions.
"We hope that (the controversy) will calm down as soon as possible, and we do not wish to keep discussing this," said an employee of of 7-Wind Model Costume reached by AFP.
Many Chinese expressed outrage at the photos posted online that showed girls wearing high boots and swaying their hips in front of gleaming sedans at a car show last week in the central city of Wuhan.
"The morals of 30 years ago are gone, is this not the result when money is king?" said a user on the popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo. "This is the picture of moral decay."
"What a disgrace, using little girls in bikinis to sell cars," said another.
Car shows in China -- the world's largest auto market -- often feature scantily clad models, while adult beauty pageants are often held around the country, including six Miss World contests.
"If you type 'children' and 'bikini' into an Internet search engine, you will find tens of thousands of results of bikini contests for children," the company director Zhang Ping was quoted in Chinese media as saying.
Zhang said that all of the models had participated with their parents' consent and that only two were as young as age 5. Such an experience could "boost their self-confidence", she said.
But many Weibo users disagreed.
"Little girls wearing bikinis at an auto show, is this one of the great achievements of Reform and Opening?" one asked, referring to China's three-decade effort to modernise its economy.
The historic overhaul brought years of roaring growth and dramatically improved living standards, but the rapid change was also criticised for upending social values.