Organisers of a Chinese motor show have rejected criticism for allowing girls as young as five to model alongside the exhibits dressed only in bikinis.

Photographs of the girls have been posted on the internet next to adult models at the Chutian Auto Culture Festival in Wuhan, Hubei province, but the event's organisers dismissed the furore.

In a statement made through China Daily, Zhang Ping, general manager of the event's organisers, 7-Wind Model Costume Co, said: "If you type the key words 'children' and 'bikini' into an Internet search engine, you'll find tens of thousands of results for child bikini contests.

"It's natural for kids to wear bikinis and other things they like."

She added that the children were used to "boost their courage" and that the girls in bikinis had the support of their parents.

Women draped over cars have been a long-established - and questioned - feature of car shows, but the use of such young children in skimpy clothing in Chutian has shocked many.

Tong Xiaojun, a specialist in child rights at China Youth University for Political Sciences, told China.org that car shows were setting "a bad example" to children.

"It ruins children's innocence, and it has blurred the boundary for what children should be taught to do and what they should not at a certain age," she said.

Shang Xiaoyuan, a professor at Beijing Normal University and described by Asiaone as an expert on child welfare, said the incident was "offensive".

"Auto shows try too hard to attract customers with sexy, female models, which sends a negative message that the female form is a marketing tool," she told the wesbite, adding: "When children appear at auto shows posing in bikinis, it implants such an idea in their minds and is harmful for their development."

The controversy comes soon after actress Elizabeth Hurley was criticised for launching a range of children's swimwear that was said to be sexualising young girls.