Monday, January 5, 2009

A 'Cult' at Costco

On a milk run to my local Costco this morning, I was startled to find a woman in a long orange traditional Chinese gown standing just inside the entrance. I was even more surprised to find that her presence was connected to Falun Gong, a religious sect which the Chinese government has branded as an "evil cult."


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.

20 comments:

golf said...

Here are a few articles which provide some much needed background for your remarks:

http://bit.ly/2PQxU9
http://bit.ly/Gvfj
http://bit.ly/fhC
http://faluninfo.net/topic/102/

Referring to Falun Gong as a sect--not to mention the title of your post--shows that you do not mean it when you say that you do not take sides. It implies both a strong stance against Falun Gong practitioners, and at least tacit agreement with communist propaganda.

I think it would be useful for you to check out some of the commentary and information on this subject. The stuff above, except the last link, is all independent reportage and commentary--even that least one is based on sources, not made up. It's not all flattering for Falun Gong, but it represents the best of the information available, and will shed some more light on the issue.

Best wishes.

g-- said...

I have no opinion on Falun Gong or the PRC. I do have an opinion on false advertising, misrepresentation, and annoying people who just want to be entertained. Costco refunded my money.

name-check said...

Frankly, I suspect that Chinese FLG practitioners in US are mostly in for the green card. I personally know such a person who overstayed his visitor visa. He then seeked asylum claiming he was a FLG member. I am not sure what he has to do in order to get into FLG but he must have done something in order to justify the asylum application for green card. Anyway, he had done it. He got GC and I suspect he won't do any FLG stuff anymore. In any case, FLG members are social outcasts and constant targets of ridicule in Chinese community. I can't imagine anyone would be willing to live like that without either being a true believer or having a strong motive.

There are some American FLG members as well. I really don't know why they decide to join this. So I can't comment on their motives. However, one must consider the fact that US government had been consistently using these kind of groups to antagonize Chinese government and any other governments opposed by the US.

So can you think of a TV station for Salvation Army or even a newspaper? I think not. Can you think of a TV station for a religion with such a short history while mostly practiced by small minority in US? I think not. Or can you think of any other TV station in US broadcasting Chinese language program? I don't know any other than the TV station operated by FLG.

Yeah, they have money and they have talents. Chinese are mostly hardworking but they are certainly not very organized. Few Chinese organizations ever worked in the US. Maybe it takes a cult to do it. Or at least a cult with some serious money and advisers behind it.

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Kelly said...

The woman in that picture is one of the maker of Divine Performing Arts that business suits were promoting?

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Ryan said...

Hi Josh, I'm an American practitioner of the Falun Gong religion, a law school student, and a Politico reader.

I appreciate that you're trying to maintain a balanced tone in this post. But I'd just like to submit the thought that it's possible for individuals believing in a given religion to organize cultural events reflecting those beliefs without implicating some shadowy, hidden purpose. These shows reflect some Falun Gong members' personal interpretations of traditional Chinese cultural ideas, but they are not emanating "from Falun Gong." There is no hierarchical organization to this religion that could issue some sort of canonical message in the first place.

Lastly, I would add that when your friends, relatives, and fellow believers are being imprisoned and tortured for the crime of professing the wrong faith, it is natural to try to get the word out. A group of people practicing a form of Buddhism with an exotic name, trying to inform the public about the atrocities being committed against their counterparts in China, is sure to be labeled in various unflattering ways.

But invoking the "cult" epithet, even in quotes, as though it were some form of substantive criticism of either our beliefs or the forms of speech or association we choose to engage in, seems unfair to me. We believe in truth, compassion, and tolerance, and try to practice them. We have a set of beliefs that is closely connected with Buddhism and Taoism, and we are a diverse group of people of different backgrounds and with often differing viewpoints. I hope that this does not qualify us to be labeled with a term that, in China, has been used as the justification for torture, book-burning, and state-sanctioned murder.

Carmina said...

I was at Costco and that event took place and I saw the same woman in a long orange traditional Chinese and it caught my attention, another thing that caught my attention was the Sildenafil Citrate presentation there. The event as a whole was pretty good!

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sre94 said...

Yeah, I would rather not deal with cults when I go to Costco, but hey, that's just me

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Andrew H. said...

I can't understand why Falun Gong is considerated like an evil cult, if it's a group done by normal people with different thoughts.. is not allow to think different?

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Cult or not, they have the right to go to wherever they want to. As long as they are not causing mayhem, then so let them be. In the first place, how sure are we that they are cults? Right?