Have Three Million People in Taiwan Joined a Business Cult?

Taiwan is world’s fourth-largest market for direct selling industry

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(Photo from Instagram user @liveywu)

(Photo from Instagram user @liveywu)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- For job seekers today, opportunities seem to be drying up. Headlines offer hope for future job growth, but many feel as though their skills do not match these jobs of tomorrow. Young college graduates, adults in their mid-twenties to early thirties, stay-at-home moms, and recently retired dads are all looking for an extra way to earn a bit of cash.

It is this climate that has drawn over three million Taiwanese, according to FTC statistics, into active distributorship roles within the network marketing industry. In terms of sales volume, Taiwan is the world’s fourth-largest market for the direct selling industry. To be honest though, it is not really an industry. It’s a marketing plan that operates across many sectors of the economy, including health and beauty, weight-loss, fashion, self-help, household consumer items, and even finance. They go by names like Amway, shop.com, HerbaLife, doTERRA, Cosway, Melaleuca, Arbonne, Mannatech, and Mary Kay.

What sets these marketing plans apart is that as an independent contractor, or what some would mistakenly call "entrepreneur," individuals are not only incentivized to sell a product but are often called upon to sell others an opportunity to join their team. These new recruits join a person’s downline, and that person earns a commission not only from their own purchases but the purchases of their recruits. This creates an endless chain of growth that builds a pyramid-like structure with an ever-expanding base. It’s through this system that many often misperceive the business plan as a get-rich-quick scheme. In fact, it requires a great deal of hard work through prospecting, grooming, deceiving, and training to get a prospective recruit to join your team.

Yes. I didn't neglect to include that third one. That is the real issue with this business plan. Deception. Because so much relies on building a large team in order to earn the top figures that so many dream of, prospecting can be as much about the art of deception as it is the art of persuasion. Now, one might believe that a deceived recruit is not as effective as a persuaded recruit. However, when there are dynamics that operate within the team that echo those found in Scientology, the Branch Davidians, and modern-day and early communism, this distinction becomes difficult to differentiate.

Before regarding all cults as bad news, consider the definition of destructive cults offered by Steve Hassan, a leading cult expert and founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Centre. “A destructive cult is a pyramid-shaped authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have dictatorial control. It uses deception to recruit new members and does not tell them what the group is, what the group actually believes, and what will be expected of them if they become members. It also uses mind control techniques to keep people dependent, obedient, and loyal.”

Hassan has developed an instrument known as the BITE Model that is useful in assessing whether someone has joined a destructive cult with simple, easy-to-ask questions. BITE stands for behavior control, information control, thought control, and emotion control. These can be used to initiate an investigation driven by curiosity, not judgment, into the lives of your friends affected by these entities.

Behavior control involves how the organization dictates what you do. Does it regulate what you eat or drink? Are you coached to take daily supplements? Are you losing sleep to attend late meetings when you’re drained from a long day of work or take part in two to three-day events to familiarize yourself with the company business plan? Does the group encourage you to spend money on products you otherwise wouldn’t? Does it exploit your finances, incentivizing you to take on debt in the short term for riches in the long term? Does it seek to influence your appearance and recommend what clothes or makeup you should wear for the perfect Instagram photo?

Information control dictates who you get information from, how you deal with information that does not align with the group's credo, and how you spread information within the group and to group outsiders. Information coming from the organization should not be questioned, and if outsiders question its practices, they should be removed from one’s circle of friends.

Thought control deals with pulling you away from critical thinking. It may have you repeating a set of mantras, sayings, or slogans that appear in series after series of PowerPoint slides. Your friends outside the group may start to comment that you sound like a robot. Your thoughts are acculturated towards being positive, especially as its pertains to the group, and you develop very binary thinking: black vs. white, us vs. them, etc.

Finally, emotional control is the big draw that attracts people to a social group that is full of energy, “love, and rewards. Certain behaviors may be labeled as wrong, specifically if they are different than “the way” to success dictated by the founder of the group. Fear is also instilled: the fear of never finding success outside the group, of losing the close bonds of the group, and of being a failure and not reaching the dream you set out to accomplish.

Now some of these forms of control may also come from good friends, a church organization, your online community, or even your family. The components of the BITE model sit on a scale known as an influence continuum. It’s important to assess where you feel you lie on this spectrum with regard to every group in your life. Many will find that the relationships within their social circles are mostly healthy and non-deceptive. However, as Hassan points out, in general, multi-level marketing (MLM) companies are destructive to a concerning degree.

Hassan actually developed this model on Robert Jay Lifton’s "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China," a study of Mao’s teachings and conditioning of his entire nation to adopt communist idealism through very harsh and taxing conditions. It may serve as a powerful warning to those three million Taiwanese involved in multi-level marketing companies. These principles hold still strong in China today under a massive authoritarian pyramid structure, and many people still live in severe poverty and neglect, with the overall growth rate seemingly in decline after nearly a decade of rapid growth. The similarities with MLM organizations should raise alarms.

It should also be noted that China has banned this form of business model from operating within China, and many speculate that this is because the brainwashing techniques these companies employ limit the control the state has over its disciplined, well-behaved citizens.

What are your thoughts on this? Is it reasonable to believe that the mass expansion of these businesses is a real problem for Taiwan? Do you know anyone involved in these companies? Please share your thoughts on our Facebook page.

Dave was an ESL teacher at a private school in Taichung. For more insight into this subject, check out Steve Hassan's book "Combating Cult Mind Control" and his website freedomofmind.com.