A group of child protection activists have raised their concerns about a popular reality show in which a 23-year-old Olympic athlete and a 4-year-old girl who plays his daughter act like a "couple."
The fourth season of reality show "Dad, Where Are We Going?" which premiered on October 7 on Mango TV, the online division of Hunan TV, one of China's largest television stations, has been criticized for its "parent internship" feature in which celebrities spend two days with other people's children.
In previous seasons, the show only featured celebrity fathers spending time with their own children.
The show has been particularly criticized for the pairing of Olympic fencer Dong Li and his "daughter" Arale, whose real name is Cui Yahan, who some say have been overly intimate and have been mocked by Net users as being like a "couple."
Viewers objected to the pair sharing a bed, with Arale was only wearing a top and her underpants. Some have also expressed discomfort with Arale saying during the show that she would like to marry Dong while she grows up and Dong joking that Arale is his ideal girlfriend and he will wait for her to grow up.
While some people see the pair's relationship as warm and sweet, pointing out it is only a show, some child protection activists have argued it may set a bad example to children and parents and may lead to children being manipulated for ulterior motives.
Arale has gained fame on Chinese social media for being cute in fashion shows, advertisements and TV programs while handsome Dong won popularity when he competed in the Rio Olympic Games as a fencer.
Since they came together on the show, many netizens have joked that their life goals are "to marry Dong and give birth to a daughter like Arale." However, this positive reception soon began to sour as intimate scenes frequently appeared in the show such as Arale wearing Dong's clothes and saying "I feel better staying with you than with my mom."
Moreover, media reports depicting the pair as a sweet "couple" have gone viral and a snapshot from the show featuring Dong giving Alare a peck on the lips was used to advertise the show on streaming video sites.
On Friday, the Beijing-based NGO Girls' Protection called for a stop to the show. The NGO said on its Sina Weibo account that the reality show is offering a problematic example for young people, encouraging them to believe that the behavior being depicted is appropriate.
Sun Xuemei, one of the founders of the NGO, told the Global Times on Tuesday that she believes the program has not purposefully created this inappropriate relationship but the content of the show has worked against their efforts to educate and protect children as it may teach them the wrong lessons.
Many online celebrities also vented their anger toward the show. Some said that it was inappropriate to let a girl who has not established gender consciousness live and eat with a grown man and hyping up them as a couple may incite pedophilia.
However, audiences are divided over whether the pair is cute or creepy. Some Net users said that the criticisms are hyperbolic, claiming that people should see the pair from a more innocent perspective.
Dong replied to the media that a female director was responsible for taking care of Alare during the show and he has a sense of propriety. He said that he was angry about some netizens who distorted their fake familial relationship and took it out of context, the Shanghai Morning Post reported on Tuesday.
Dong added that he was furious about "psychosexuality" articles and videos made by Net users, saying that they may have hidden malicious purposes and such talk may harm Arale.
Mango TV argued on Saturday that the interactions between Dong and Arale were a result of "purity and beauty" and providing an "intern father" was intended to educate young parents. The show insisted that it has protected all the children involved in the show and claimed its critics are attention-seekers.
Huang Lili, a psychological health expert from the Beijing Sex Education Association, told the Global Times on Tuesday that the reality show may harm the children involved. A child may be aware of gender roles at that age but have no consciousness of self-protection.
"Parents should educate children about sex correctly, and telling them how to act around opposite-sex strangers is a part of that education," said Huang, adding that parents should offer correct guidance while watching the show with their children; otherwise the children may think they could do the same things with strangers in reality.
Moreover, the bad example may incite some people to lure children, which may lead to the sexual harassment or assault, said experts.