BEIJING• The fourth season of the popular Chinese reality show Dad Where Are We Going, featuring fake father-daughter pairs, has been accused of showcasing inappropriate relationships between adults and children.
In previous seasons, the show featured only celebrity dads and their real children, but a government ban on the "overuse" of celebrities' children has forced the show to change. It now pairs "father interns", all celebrities, with children who are not their own.
In this season, Olympic athlete Dong Li, 23, is designated "father" to Cui Yahan, four. He takes care of the little girl several days a week, eats and sleeps with her, and is present when she bathes.
The season also features actress Christy Chung's third husband, actor Zhang Lunshuo, 34, with Cayla Yen, six, her daughter from her second marriage.
Dong and Cui have spawned thousands of so-called "CP" or "couple" fans - people who believe certain TV characters are meant to be together romantically.
They point to a scene in which Cui tells Dong she wants to marry him when she grows up, as well as to an interview in which he says his dream girl is Arale, Cui's nickname.
The show's production company, Mango TV, fanned the flames by posting an online video clip set to a love song and captioned Dong And Arale's Interpretation Of Let's Fall In Love, referring to a famous Chinese dating show.
Mango TV is the online division of Hunan TV, one of China's largest television channels.
However, the pair's popularity has triggered worries among parents and experts. Some have claimed that the popularity of the show may mislead the public about adult-child relationships and make children vulnerable.
A mother-to-be published an open letter on China's microblog service Sina Weibo, expressing her anger that the show's producers have edited the show to make the pair look like a couple.
"If she were your daughter, would you ever let her stay with a strange man wearing only underwear? Would you ever allow a 23-year-old man to tell the media that his ideal type for a girlfriend is your three- year-old daughter?" the woman wrote.
The woman is a volunteer for Girl Protection, a public welfare programme under the Children's Safety Fund of the China Social Assistance Foundation.
Statistics from Girl Protection indicate that last year, the media exposed 314 cases of sexual abuse against children in China and 85 per cent of these cases were perpetrated by someone the child knows.
Others are quick to defend the show against the accusations.
"I don't think the pair is creepy. They are so adorable. Please don't exaggerate just to scare the public," said a Weibo user.
The show responded via its official account on Weibo, saying the criticisms are "over-interpreting". "The clips of Dong's words were intended to show his paternal love, but these clips were distorted and interpreted out of context, misleading netizens and causing invisible harm to children," said the statement.
Dong never stays alone with the girl, the statement added. Cameras are placed everywhere and the girl has a female director to help her change her clothes and bathe.
"We hope more people can focus on the innocence of the children and the paternal love of their 'father interns'," the statement said.