Is China Afraid of the Next Miss World?

Beijing appears to be doing everything it can to shut down Canadian beauty queen (and Falun Gong devotee) Anastasia Lin. Why are pageant organizers abandoning their outspoken delegate?

LONDON — In many ways, Anastasia Lin is your typical beauty queen. As the winner of Miss World Canada 2015, she walks into every room wearing the confidence that comes from years of acting, modeling, and fawning press attention. Like most Miss World contestants, she has a wider social interest; in this case, it’s human rights. And like all the other contestants, she is gearing up to take part in this year’s Miss World competition on Dec. 19. So far, so Miss World.

But beneath her perfect smile, Anastasia Lin is afraid of what December will bring. Her fear runs deep beyond the contest, back to her birthplace and the host country of this year’s Miss World pageant: China. In fact, the feeling may be mutual. For Lin is a practitioner of Falun Gong, and Falun Gong is the Chinese Communist Party’s worst nightmare.

Even after 15 years of accelerating persecution, Falun Gong is the home-grown Buddhist-revival movement that China can’t quite seem to kill. What began back in 1999 as a state smear campaign, wraparound surveillance, and catch-and-release arrests of Falun Gong members, has become a permanent fixture in 2015: an estimated half-million practitioners in detention, more than 4,000 reportedly dead by torture. It’s been estimated that 65,000 Falun Gong were murdered on the operating table between 2000 and the the Beijing Olympics in 2008—surgically harvested for their retail organs inside China’s military hospitals, as documented in Ethan Gutmann’s 2014 book The Slaughter. According to Gutmann, who conducted extensive interviews with survivors, witnesses, and the doctors themselves: “We could double that number now in 2015.”

At just 25, Anastasia Lin has emerged as an increasingly prominent critic of the Chinese regime: playing the lead in several award-winning films about human rights in China, testifying before the U.S. Congress on Chinese religious persecution, and publishing deeply personal accounts of how her human-rights work has put her father, who still lives in China, at risk. She’s become a voice for those whom China has silenced; a powerful, beautiful woman who has been publicly invited by Miss World to step onto one of the world’s largest platforms.

Thus Beijing faces a classic predicament: Does it follow the international protocol of Miss World and allow Lin to attend (and face potential embarrassment in front of the Chinese people)? Or does it simply provide no platform at all (and face potential embarrassment in front of the West)?

It would appear that China is trying to be clever by doing neither. The plan seems to be to run out the clock—Lin has yet to receive an invitation letter from this year’s Miss World organizers in China. Without the invitation letter, there will be no visa application. And if she does not receive a visa by Nov. 16, she will be disqualified from the competition altogether. Miss Australia already has her letter and her visa stamped and signed. As does Miss India. As far as Anastasia Lin knows, she is the only contestant who has yet to receive a letter. Could it be that hers is lost in the mail?

Unlikely. It is, after all, not the first time that China has tried to silence Lin. Back in 2013, in the run-up to the Miss World Canada event, the national pageant organizers received a mysterious email urging them to “seriously reconsider her candidacy,” warning them that Lin had “only entered this contest so that she can attack the Chinese gov’t,” and that “her hatred of the Chinese gov’t will only embarrass and discredit this competition,” before finishing with a final threat: “Don’t be surprised if your sponsors start pulling out due to an insulted Chinese gov’t.”

The organizers merely forwarded the email to Lin. During the competition, Lin said the panel’s two judges of Chinese origin scored her zero out of 10. Despite her native country’s best efforts, Lin walked away with the bronze medal, using her finalist speech to commemorate those in China who had lost their lives for their beliefs. Yet her success created a buzz in China, and news broke through the “Great Chinese Firewall” into online chatrooms and small-time media. When her father, who had always supported her efforts to compete, began receiving media attention, he would tell TV channels how proud he was of his daughter.

Carried along by the momentum, Chinese state media chose to piggyback on Lin’s “Chinese girl makes good abroad” story, but replaced her real name with a fake one. One by one, articles with her real name disappeared from the Internet, she says. One fan messaged her to say that China’s main social-media site, Weibo, had censored all of the news about her awards, adding “They are so afraid of you.” Her father sent Lin screenshots of “This page no longer exists”-type messages where her online presence used to be.

Days later, Lin says she received an email from her father telling her to stop her human-rights work. China’s state security had come to his house, he said. If Anastasia did not stop speaking out about China, the entire family would be denounced publicly in what he described as a second Cultural Revolution. “He pretty much severed his relationship with me,” she recalls.

Lin immediately called her father. What was going on? “Just stop doing all this work,” he replied, before making a final desperate plea: “Please leave us with a way to survive.” Several panicked conversations took place before he stopped answering her phone calls. She was shocked at how out of character he had become—the “very traditional man” whose family meant “everything to him” was now too afraid to speak to his daughter. “The Cultural Revolution was a trauma for him and he saw it was about to repeat itself,” she says. As a result of past repression, her father and many others “have been living in fear. This fear has been internalized and it’s a part of them.”

While her initial reaction was to protect her father from the Chinese authorities, being silenced was no longer an option: “I don’t want to put my family at risk, but it is precisely because of them, because of this situation, that I have to keep doing what I am doing. Otherwise, all I have done before is in vain.”

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China’s latest blatant attempt to shut down Anastasia Lin appears to have gone unchallenged by Miss World Ltd.—a British company based in London. When Lin asked Miss World officials to help her, pageant organizers told her that their invitation was not enough to apply for a visa, and that she would need to receive an official letter of invitation from China. When she contacted them again, they said they had asked China for a letter, but that there was not much they could do. While in London, she rang Miss World asking for a meeting. They said they were too busy.

Why would pageant organizers not do their utmost to ensure all their beauty queens make it to the competition? Why would it not speak up for its female representatives around the world? Wouldn’t Miss World rather take the pageant somewhere else than allow the host country to silence participants?

I took my questions to Miss World itself, to which a spokesperson responded: “We do not know what is in a contestants [sic] background that would cause their visa applications to be rejected” and that “In the final instance it will be down to the regulations that apply for the host country and whether the contestant is eligible to enter the host country under those regulations.” In response to my question of whether China’s rejection of a visa application would prompt Miss World to find another host, the representative replied: “If we cancel or move the show each time a visa was not granted for a contestant, then it would be impossible to plan the event.”

Interestingly, Miss World declined to answer questions about any money or prizes it may have received from its host. Perhaps this is because of China’s considerable generosity toward the pageant company. In 2003, the host resort city of Sanya on Hainan Island apparently went to great lengths to secure an agreement with Miss World:

The city made no charges for the use of the competition facilities; instead, a US$4.8 million “permission fee” was offered to the Miss World Organization. Sanya also allowed the organization to pocket the broadcasting fees paid by TV networks outside China.

In response to Miss World’s initial concerns about the chance of protests taking place, China reassured the group it was “in a unique position to provide a setting of peace and stability.” This was clearly enough for Miss World leaders to agree to begin what has become a lasting relationship with China, which has hosted Miss World seven times—six of which have been held in the Crown of Beauty Theater it built in Sanya for the event.

Miss World officials appear to be grimly determined to play the role of innocent bystander to what will no doubt be passed off as an administrative error by Beijing. In reality, it is accommodating China’s Communist Party, turning a blind eye to the fact that its business partner is demanding Anastasia Lin’s silence with her father as ransom. It is looking past the regime’s longstanding persecution of dissenters and minorities. In its indifference, Miss World is a complicit partner to China’s continued human-rights abuses.

Anastasia Lin is days away from being disqualified from the pageant, and China will have won. Organizers of Miss World—whose motto is “Beauty With a Purpose”—now have a choice to make. They can further expose the depraved lengths to which they will go to secure financial gain. Or they can give their Canada delegate the same treatment as the other contestants and allow her a platform—even if it means changing the location to do so. Choosing to side with the individual—who is willing to risk everything to speak truth to power—would be a transformative moment, not only for China, but for the plasticine world of beauty pageants as well.