FORTUNE — The China auto show is a big deal in China, as the organizers like to remind you. Biggest show in Asia. One of the largest auto shows in the world. The superlatives tend to set your expectations for some serious car gawking when you plan on attending in Beijing, which I did this week.
What you discover, perhaps even more than China’s fascination with cars, is why many of the nearly 1 million attendees pay $13 to get in: the models. No, not the kind with fenders. We’re talking supermodels in dresses, evening gowns, short skirts, T-shirts, and the occasional tube top.
Sure, at the auto shows in Detroit or New York, you’ll see plenty of models — but they’re usually hugging a Lamborghini or elevated on stage. In the Beijing auto show the models are, well … everywhere — standing next to countless Chinese cars throughout Beijing’s massive new exhibition hall, not just the ones on stage. And their apparent willingness to stare into camera lenses encourages the mostly male attendees to take as many pictures as possible. Nearly every model is hounded from the moment the doors open at 9 a.m. until they close at 8 p.m.
MORE: What is water worth?
Chinese media are in on the game: Sina.com posted a useful story about where the top Chinese models would be working, height and bust sizes, and experience at the show.
I made it to the last day of this year’s show, which rotates annually between Shanghai and Beijing. Though I arrived a full nine days after the global auto press swept into Beijing for media day and five days after the event first opened to the public, tens of thousands of people were still flooding into the exhibits for Ford (F), Chevrolet (GM), and dozens of Chinese automakers.
“The crowds are crazy,” says Daphni Hilton, an American model who splits her time between New York and Shanghai. She was taking a coffee break with a Hungarian model named Barbie. Both said they feel lucky to be working at Cadillac’s exhibit where they wear elegant dresses with a lot of coverage. But the number of people seeking photos is still awkward. “It’s totally different than Europe. They move right up to your face,” said Hilton. “They told us we shouldn’t wander the halls — it’s not safe.” Apparently during the busy days, the hallways are almost impassable.
There are plenty of male models on the floor as well. I asked Nemo Nemanja Barovic, a male model from Serbia, how China’s show is different from those in Europe. “Here they only take pictures of the models, not the cars,” he said, laughing. He sounded more curious than bothered. Neutarios Kiruopoulos, a model from Greece who was still wearing a tailored grey suit on break, was genuinely puzzled with what people do with the photographs. “WeChat?” he guessed.
MORE: Fuel cells power way, way up
The excitement that follows models at China’s auto show isn’t exactly new — one of the country’s supermodels once wore this dress to the show. And many of China’s modeling agencies consider the show a key event in the year. “It’s important for any modeling agency because it’s a very good platform to show your strength and power,” said Qi Kun, an agent at New Silk Road modeling agency, one of China’s better-known agencies, which had more than 10 models at this year’s show. She said the only instructions they give models is to stay off social media and not to wander the halls during breaks — again, probably for their own safety.
What’s different is that this year’s show comes after the Chinese government has made a big show of cracking down on excess. Sales of luxury watches and expensive liquor have plummeted; Sina.com, the Internet portal, was fined recently for hosting pornography; and police staged a big prostitution sting in the country’s south earlier this year. The model worship seemed like it could be a next step.
Changes won’t come for another year, at least. In the meantime, picture galleries of the auto show are now popping up across Chinese websites. Models are the main attraction.