How much do executives get for their souls in the age of China? The folks at L’Oreal may help answer this most tantalizing of questions as its Lancome brand sells out Hong Kong to pretty up ties with Beijing.

Leave it to a cosmetics maker to prove multinationals’ commitment to free speech and civic responsibility is skin deep. The blemish on Lancome’s standing with Xi Jinping’s government was sponsoring a mini-concert by Canto-pop star Denise Ho, which sparked a backlash because of her support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement and Tibet. Lancome blamed “possible safety concerns” for scrapping the event and shuttering stores. But its best makeup products can’t mask the shamefulness of this capitulation and the ugly precedent it sets.

Granted, Western names have a long and checkered track record of denying they kowtowing to Beijing, from Yahoo! to Microsoft. Ten years on, I’m still a bit amazed by the Rolling Stones bowing to the Communist Party and not playing “Brown Sugar,” “Beast of Burden,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and other classics. “We didn’t expect to come to China and not be censored,” singer Mick Jagger told reporters in Shanghai at the time, insisting it’s “not a big deal.”

It is, actually, when you consider that, a decade on, Chinese censors are turning efforts to ensure mainlanders can’t always get what they want on the internet up to 11. Or that Jagger’s prime minister, David Cameron, is salaaming to China for market access. But now, China is seeing to it that global companies looking to tap its huge market potential play by its rules outside its borders, too.

You have to love the irony of a French cosmetics icon exposing how the thin-skinned Xi is altering the complexion of international business norms. Xi is often said to be China’s strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping or even Mao Zedong. But so petrified is his government of criticism, real or imagined, that Taylor Swift had to finesse her “1989” clothing line. Unfortunately for the pop sensation, the year of her birth coincides with the Tiananmen Square crackdown Xi’s party pretends never happened.

Might the city of San Francisco find its way on Beijing’s blacklist if it hosts the Dalai Lama? Could London suffer Xi’s wrath in the near future for letting pro-Tibet acts Bjork, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers play there? Last year, remember, concerts in China by Bon Jovi and Maroon 5 were canceled for just that reason. Other artists as varied as Bob Dylan and Jay-Z have a hard time playing there. Would Japan pay a price for inviting new Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to address lawmakers? Or South Korea letting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists speak in Seoul? All open questions, at this point.

Corporate executives are even easier prey. What kind of quid pro quos will Xi’s team demand from Facebook? Mark Zuckerberg has already faced China-censorship accusations, even before his social-media juggernaut gets a “like” from Beijing to operate there.

North Korea couldn’t stop Hollywood from having a laugh at Kim Jong Un, but Beijing may demand veto rights over scripts. If you want to open the next “Avengers” or “Stars Wars” film here, China might say, you must scrap this project or that one.

And what of investment banks? Beijing could demand bearish economists and analysts pull punches in exchange for access to initial public offerings and M&A deals. Universities looking to open China campuses may have their faculties, curriculums and guest speaking lineups micromanaged by Beijing.

The media is another can of worms. News outlets face the Faustian bargain of deciding between covering China with the same steadiness and independence as they do other major nations or engaging in self-censorship. It’s a dilemma facing all news outfits as Beijing intimidates coverage by an industry already in commercial turmoil thanks to internet competition and weak global growth.

The sacrificing of values is the price multinationals will pay for access to China’s 1.4 billion people, and a fast-rising one. The only way Facebook, for example, enters China anytime soon is as a tool of Xi’s propaganda priorities.

The same is true of Google, which left China in 2010 rather than do Beijing’s bidding. At the time, officials at the State Council Information Office said China “uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.”

Those same officials might want to look in the mirror as a subsidiary of L’Oreal, a proud 107-year name employing 78,000 around the globe, does just that to make Beijing happy. China state media quickly rejoiced. “Apparently Lancome is more inclined to take care of the emotions of the people on the mainland,” wrote the Global Times. “The reason is very simple: the size of the mainland market is multiple times that of Hong Kong. This row shows that members of the public in mainland China have realized their impeccable power to influence the market. From now on, they will no longer be kind towards celebrities or anyone who makes money out of China but at the same time criticizes China.”

To punctuate the point, the commentary featured a photo of singer Ho hugging with the Dalai Lama. “If you want to be part of the mainland Chinese market and take advantage of it,” it argues, “then stop taking actions that damage the interests of China, whether you are in mainland China or not. This is a ‘universal’ philosophy.”

If it is universal, it’s not by choice but commercial realpolitik. China’s huge market importance to everyone from Gucci to Starbucks to Toyota makes for quite a balancing act. But let’s not forget the cynicism of this moment. Each time executives alter global practices to placate Beijing, they encourage it to go even further in censoring ideas and events a world away. It’s time executives formulated a less compliant response to Beijing’s paranoia.

On its website, for example, L’Oreal trumpets values like “integrity,” “transparency,” “responsibility” and “courage.” No amount of lipstick, foundation cream or blush can disguise the hypocrisy it’s displaying in Hong Kong, one prompting calls for mass boycotts.

As Ho told the Wall Street Journal: “This is not only about me and the brand. It’s about the whole situation in Hong Kong where everyone is being suppressed and everyone is living in some kind of a ‘white terror’ that we cannot speak out publicly about anything concerning the Chinese government.”

The brouhaha gives whole new complexion to L’Oreal’s other stated ideals, including “open-mindedness” and “passion.” Make that open-mindedness for selling out to China and passion for putting profits before a company’s soul.

Based in Tokyo, William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com

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