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A Deep Look into China's Facelift Industry

On Nov. 26, after undergoing a grueling series of 14 cosmetic procedures -- from the head to the buttocks, 24-year-old freelance fashion writer and jewellery dealer Hao Lulu finally finished her long, drawn-out "man-made beauty project" that cost 300,000 yuan (about US$37,500). Undoubtedly, Hao's publicity stunt underscores the increasing popularity of cosmetic surgeries in today's China where a growing white-collar class is becoming more and more concerned with physical appearance.

Nevertheless, it's only one side of the story. In fact, the growing popularity of plastic surgery has led to unlicensed practitioners selling their services for lower prices. According to statistics made by the China National Consumers' Association (CNCA), during the past decade, there have been over 200,000 malpractice lawsuits filed by patients because of botched operations. Face lifting has become a bona fide beauty killer in China.


According to Prof. Zhou Gang who performed some of Hao's cosmetic procedures, originally, China's face-lifting industry started at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. During the first 20 years or so, plastic operations were by and large confined to wound treatments such as skin-graft after burns. The idea of beauty treatment wasn't introduced into China until the late 1970s. However, only actors and actresses with an official letter of introduction in hand were eligible to have cosmetic surgery then.


"In 1979, at Beijing Plastic Surgery Hospital I underwent my first double eyelid surgery procedures. The operation cost 40 yuan (about US$5), which was equal to an ordinary worker's monthly wage at that time," Zhou recalled. "Aesthetic cosmetic beauty surgery formally broke away from plastic surgery in the 1990s, which promoted a booming face lifting industry nationwide afterwards."


Currently, there are three kinds of institutions engaged in face lifting in China, said Ass. Prof. Feng Lizhe, another expert who performed plastic surgery for Hao. "They include: plastic surgery affiliated to public hospitals, contract plastic surgery in some hospitals, and private beauty parlors scattered everywhere."


According to Feng, most cosmetologists in public hospitals possess superb medical skills and have a long record of performing plastic operations. However, usually they consider it beneath their dignity to perform small cosmetic surgery like double eyelid reconstruction and narrowing of the nose.


On the other hand, many beauticians from street beauty parlors, who lack necessary professional skills, offer double eyelid surgery at low prices but without authorized permits. This is the root cause of so many malpractice lawsuits being filed by patients.


Mostly, the big price differential between home-made and imported cosmetic materials decides the colossal profits of the face lifting industry, Zhou said. For instance, based on different materials, the cost of narrowing the nose ranges from 1,000 to 7,000 yuan, with a price difference of 6,000 yuan. In fact, the purchasing price of home-made silica gel used for narrowing the nose is usually 10 yuan or so a packet, but the after-tariff price of imported silica gel has soared up to 3,000 yuan a packet.


Despite the tremendous price difference, consumers would rather buy imported high-quality silica gels. This material problem stems from backward manufacturing techniques. To put it in a nutshell, over a long period of time domestic industrial enterprises haven't invested much in research or development of cosmetic material manufacture.


Overall, China's face lifting industry has made great headway over the previous decade. However, compared with the same trade overseas, there is still a long way to go in services, trade regulation, etc.


To be quite frank, face-lifting is a service sector, Feng said. First, safety is of prime importance, otherwise the trade's reputation will be marred. Second, it's necessary to let customers enjoying plastic service feel as comfortable as staying in a hotel. Third, pre and post-surgery services must be provided to enhance the exchange between medical staff and patients.


In China today, surgical face lifting is not being exclusively enjoyed by actors and actresses as in the past, Zhou said.


Actually, the past decade saw a year-by-year rising tendency among white-collar employees and university students who underwent cosmetic operations. According to Zhou, first, white-collar workers and some students from well-off families are able to afford expensive plastic surgery. Second, improved physical appearance can give white-collar ladies an edge on fierce rivals, and increase the bargaining power of students in their hunt for jobs. Third, in any case, facelifts are still something new to ordinary Chinese people. Comparatively speaking, white-collar employees and university students have a strong ability to enjoy things that are novel.


(China.org.cn by Shao Da and Daragh Moller, December 10, 2003)

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