The woman and several compatriots in business suits were promoting "Divine Performing Arts: The Spectacular 2009," a show which will be staged at the Kennedy Center in Washington in February and is timed to coincide with Chinese New Year. Similar performances at Radio City Music Hall last year led some attendees to tell the New York Times they were shocked to find pro-Falun Gong propaganda in the show. Some walked out, complaining they were deceived.
The Times said promotional material for the 2008 show made no mention of the sect. A brochure being handed out at the Costco in Arlington, Va. discloses the connection in passing. "Divine Performing Arts...is indpendent of China's regime and proud to include artists that practice Falun Gong meditation," the flyer says. Fine print on the back says the Washington run is "presented by NTVDC," a television news outlet affiliated with the sect, and by the local Falun Dafa Association. The show's Web site says "Audiences may....glimpse the courage of Falun Gong practitioners in China today."
A newspaper linked to the sect, Epoch Times, recently boasted about the success of the Costco connection. Nearly half the audience for a show in Chicago was drawn in through the warehouse store, the paper said. Epoch Times also said the in-store promotional tabling was approved at Costco headquarters in Washington state and that chain executives specifically insisted on the costumed "empress" who greeted me this morning.
The sect's connection at Costco goes beyond the practice at some stores of letting the Salvation Army, a Christian group, fundraise at the doors. Tickets to the Falun Gong-backed shows are actually purchased at the Costco register.
There are cult-like aspects to the Falun Dafa/Falun Gong group, though many members insist they practice it mostly for the calm and focus achieved through meditation and breathing exercises. I am also minfdul that the dividing line between a cult and a mainstream religion is fuzzy and, in the view of some, nonexistent. On the other side of the ledger, the Chinese government's response to the group has been heavy-handed and sharply criticized by international human rights groups.
I'm not really looking to take one side or the other in the longrunning battle between the Chinese Government and Falun Gong, or to assert an equivalence between the two. I'm just surprised that a major American corporation would want to wade into all this. Would Costco permit a man costumed as a People's Liberation Army soldier to stand in uniform inside its stores? Would Costco sell tickets for shows which could be seen as proselytizing by a Catholic or evangelical Christian group? For a non-religious Chinese pro-Democracy group?
Of course, Costco is free to open its doors to any group. I'd also fervently defend anyone's attempt to exercise their First Amendment rights outside of Costco, even on the store's private property. This 2004 court ruling says Costco allows such "expressive activity" under a complex regulatory scheme, only at stores which share parking lots with non-Costco stores, and perhaps only in California. (In this instance, the ticket sales further complicate the analogy.)
Costco sold its holdings in the Chinese mainland in 2004 and presently has five stores in Taiwan, so maybe there's a geopolitical element to their stance. I have a call into Costco's headquarters and will post any comment they offer.
I guess it goes without saying that I'm a Costco member. I was also a member of Costco's Chinese chain, Pricesmart, before the sale.
Addendum: It looks like the arrangement between the show and Costco may have been in place for a year or more.