- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

In August, Mary Kay Inc., the American cosmetic giant headquartered in Dallas, required each of its sales associates in the People Republic of China to sign a standard statement. In the statement, the signer promised never to practice or to advocate for Falun Gong, the spiritual group that was labeled by the Chinese authorities as an “evil cult.”

Although Mary Kay reportedly is in the process of revising the statement, and denied an earlier report that several employees were fired for refusing to sign, the damage was done. By simply linking the term Falun Gong and the threat of employment termination together, the company delivered a strong message to the Chinese people: Corporate America was ready to give in to the demand of the Chinese authorities, and, thus, to participate directly in the persecution of dissident groups.

The message is extremely alarming.

For more than half a century, Chinese authorities have routinely denied the right of employment to citizens who fall into the categories of government enemies. Millions of people have been deprived of basic means of living because they hold political or religious beliefs considered by the government as subversive. These victims and their families have to endure extreme poverty and starvation. Indeed, depriving them of employment has been one of the cruelest punishments to dissidents and their families. Year after year, reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. State Department have presented to the world a lengthy list of people in China, including intellectuals, workers, Christian leaders,andFalunGong practitioners, who have been fired for political causes.

For decades, the pro-democracy Chinese have been setting their hope on foreign investment, expecting the arrival of private business from the democratic world to take away this powerful means of persecution from the government. This hope has become reality to a limited degree. As a matter of fact, some dissidents have found employment in the private sector and in foreign business in the past decade. This gives them encouragement and more strength to hold on to their beliefs.

However, with the cooperation of private business, the Chinese authorities can easily reverse this positive change. As soon as foreign corporations in China such as Mary Kay begin to exclude people from employment eligibility simply because the Chinese authorities ask them to do so, they become accomplices of the Chinese government in suppressing human rights and political freedom. To single out Falun Gong practitioners and supporters is particularly disturbing, since the persecution of Falun Gong is generally regarded by international human rights organizations as the most severe human rights violation conducted by the Chinese government in recent years. Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been fired, arrested and jailed. Reports from China reveal that hundreds died in government custody after being brutally tortured. It is despicably unconscionable for an American company to add more pain to the victims by shutting the door in their faces.

It is understandable that American corporations are eager to enter a market of 1.3 billion consumers or a nation with hundreds of millions of cheap laborers. However, with their investment, American corporations will also create their own legacy in China. They can either gain notoriety by collaborating in political persecution or gain respect by being independent and humane. This should not be a difficult choice, even for corporate America.

Mary Kay should know better than any other company. With half a million independent sales consultants worldwide, Mary Kay promises to sell a dream globally, a dream of beauty and personal empowerment. Yet in 1998, approximately the same time when the persecution of Falun Gong began, the Chinese State Council outlawed direct sales — the kind of sales practiced by the Mary Kay associates — and labeled such sales agents “weird cults, triads, and superstitious groups.” It almost ended the operation of Mary Kay in China, until the company changed its sales tactics to comply with the government rules.

Mary Kay does not recruit its sales agents to form cults. Its agents are mostly women sharing a common dream of financial independence. The slogan in company sales rallies reads “God first, family second, and career third.” (In China, “God” is replaced with “faith.”) Mary Kay Inc. was repeatedly selected by various respectable organizations as one of the best companies to work for in America. The International Women’s Forum gave the company its award of Corporations that Make a Difference.

What kind of difference will Mary Kay make in China? Will Mary Kay bring a dream of beauty and personal empowerment, as it promises? Or will this dream end up as a nightmare of persecution, torture and starvation?

Here is a new slogan for Mary Kay’s China operation: Freedom first, image second and money third. Hope the company will adopt it.

Xiaoxia Gong holds a Ph.D in sociology from Harvard University and worked as director of the Cantonese Service, Radio Free Asia.

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