Akama Miki is a cute, 12-year-old child model from Canada with close to 500,000 followers on her Weibo (China's version of Twitter). The only person she follows is 24-year-old Chinese pop singer Zhang Muyi to whom she posts lovesick messages, such as: "Wait until I'm old enough to marry you, and then I'm going to say 'I do.' "
The everyday scribblings of a young girl with a crush? Think again. The message was written in response to Zhang Muyi's own post featuring a photo of Miki pinching him playfully on the cheek and the message: "Today we're super happy, laughing, being crazy, had a nap and practised singing. I said to Miki, 'I'm going to be with you as you grow, I'll always wait for you.' "
Both of their accounts are filled with photos of the couple running on the beach, working in the studio, eating birthday cake and curled up next to each other on a sofa. They frequently declare their love for each other, with Zhang Muyi saying on Miki's recent 12th birthday, "I simply can't wait for these next four birthdays of yours to pass, I'm counting down each one." After which, presumably, she'll be of legal age.
The most popular post has Miki in a midriff top and jeans on the beach pointing upwards. Zhang Muyi stands disconcertingly two heads taller than her with his finger joining hers - a "kiss", of sorts. An overwhelming number of the 8800 comments show messages of support, wishing them good luck, and enraptured by their romance.
uu_wong says: "Love knows no boundaries, a 12-year-old with a 24-year-old is not a big deal."
Admittedly many of these commenters appear themselves to be young boys and girls. There are also a number of detractors who express shock and label the "relationship" as "unnatural".
But is the relationship even real? Many internet citizens sniffed a rat.
王洁-jean: "You guys just want to be famous. If it were real love, you wouldn't feel the need to talk about it on Weibo. You're no different to those celebrities engaging in sex scandals."
Case in point, both of them only follow one another and have been on Weibo for a relatively short time. And coinciding with the recent announcement of their relationship has been the release of several music videos, including their new cover of the ballad Pretty Boy.
The video begins with Miki drawing both her name and Zhang Muyi's in childish writing (she is 12 after all) and then singing heavy lyrics such as: "I sneak a look at your face and my heart becomes like a clear day."
Zhang Muyi sings in response: "Your strengths, your flaws, I want to love them all."
Their next single is aptly named, Courageous Love.
Zhang Muyi responded to calls that their relationship was nothing but a publicity stunt with a post saying: "Many people have doubted us and our love story. There's nothing we can do about this, nor do we feel the need to prove anything to these people. All we can do is continue to persevere with our love, our life, and being together."
Staged or not, it's telling that such a relationship has, as a marketing strategy, been successful with the pair accruing three-quarters of a million fans in a matter of weeks. And as devious and creative as PR companies in Australia and America are, I'm pretty certain few would be willing to gamble with as strategy such as this.
The difference is that as anyone who has been to East Asia will know, the region is deep in the cult of cute. "Sexy" is inevitably "Cute-Sexy" rather than "Sexy-Sexy" with models decorated in fluffy cat ears, winking coquettishly and hands held in heart shapes. This infantilisation reveals a pressure placed on women to always maintain an appearance of purity and innocence.
But in the case of Miki and her older man, one must question if this is even a case of "Cute-Sexy". When I presented this story to one of my friends, a rather sweet and by no means atypical 23-year-old Chinese girl, she couldn't understand my repulsion. She replied:
"Of course if they're having sex that's wrong. But maybe they just get each other. Maybe they're really in love."
Her words seemed to point at my own lack of innocence in even presuming there was a physical angle to their romance. And a cynicism in my disbelief that they could possibly, remotely, be "in love".
Whatever the case, one cannot help but feel extremely uncomfortable (if not completely grossed out) by the power imbalance between this very young, undoubtedly impressionable and emotionally immature child - compared to her much older, experienced boyfriend. And worst of all, the very public way in which their relationship is playing out and being used to launch their respective careers.
And yet few commenters painted Miki as a victim of any kind. Instead, as Liz Carter of Tea Leaf Nation points out, some even view her as a sort of rival.
"Said @魔鬼心计学, "A girl born after 2000 is getting married. Those of you born in the '70's, '80's, and '90's: What do you have to say for yourself?" Wondered @Lazy的天涯, "How many girls born in the '90's will find it hard to sleep at night, after getting this news?" The implication was that a woman should land a man as soon as possible to avoid competition from younger women - even if those younger women are underage girls."
Such comments are a product of the immense pressure on women in China to marry, usually by the mid-to-late 20s. It stems from traditional values around the family and has been exacerbated by the one child policy in which only children are burdened to become the sole offspring to carry the family line. And these still unmarried, "leftover women" as they're called read this story and see a world gone mad. As one commenter said rather dryly:
小纯洁男: "Next time he should just go directly to a kindergarten to pick himself a truly innocent and pure little girlfriend."
Monica Tan is a Beijing-based writer. Published in The Diplomat, Huffington Post and The Sydney Morning Herald.