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why mailgirls?

It was the top (twenty-sixth) floor, and the blinds had to be drawn. Not because of the need for secrecy; no one could see into these big bay windows, not even the Guoanbu (the Secret Police). Of course both the Guoanbu and the Hsa Corporation were mutually aware of that. But the snow and ice of downtown Harbin were so bright this January morning that otherwise it was impossible for the thirteen officers to see each other across the big oak table up here in the penthouse boardroom.

This was Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province, booming like most Chinese cities these days, now with a population of 6 million, despite its location, up past North Korea, bordering on Siberia. Today the temperature was minus 12 Celsius, or plus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, normal for this time of year. In keeping with conservation guidelines issued by the Ministry of Power, the heat was turned down to 18 Celsius (65 Fahrenheit). Consequently the executives, fourteen men and eight women, wore sweaters over their well-tailored Western-style business suits.

The CEO, Mr. Chen, waited for everyone to settle in and then began. “You have all seen my memo,” he said, in impeccable Mandarin, with his usual stern gaze. They all knew what he expected of them. Yes, everyone had seen the memo; in fact, read it three or more times. “Your thoughts?”

“I don’t think it is a good idea,” said Mr. Zhou, a small bald man who gestured with wrinkly hands. Chen was a smart CEO. He didn’t surround himself with yes-men; he had hired these officers for their experience and abilities and wanted the benefit of their viewpoints. It was understood that thoughtful dissenting views were invited. “There are too many spectacular aspects to it. I know the decision has been made but we must minimize the affronts to traditional sensibilities.”

“I think it is in violation of the Beijing Declaration,” said Ms. Hua, an older woman who, despite the current fashion, had let her hair go gray. She was referring to the 1995 Declaration and Platform for Action, the official Chinese Communist Party document which guaranteed equal employment opportunities for women.

“I disagree,” said Ms. Sun, a generation younger than Ms. Hua. “It in no way affects the status of women in the Corporation. We have all the rights under this arrangement that the men have.” She and Ms. Hua looked at each other. There were six other women at the table; the Hsa Corporation had embraced the Beijing Declaration from the beginning. In fact the last CEO had been a woman.

The Comptroller, Ms. Ling, stood up, as she often did for emphasis. “As a woman it is best for me, I think, to make this presentation.” Only briefly glancing at her notes, she said, “The ‘Mailgirls’ program has been tried with a surprising degree of success at American corporations. There is no denying the benefits of having a dedicated cadre of messengers within a building, or within a complex. As far as the, uh, nudity aspect of it, clothes just get in the way. Once the issue of modesty is conquered, both from the aspect of the girls themselves, and from the aspect of Hsa personnel who learn to be undistracted, the program is remarkably efficient. And of course there are savings in laundry, uniforms and so forth.”

“There is a subsection in the Index to the Appendix that says, ‘Uniforms’,” Mr. Chi pointed out. “I wish we were given the full Appendix, not just the Index.”

Mr. Chen broke in. “That is only definitional. ‘Uniform’ is defined as ‘complete and total nudity at all times’.”

“What about shoes?” Mr. Yang said. He spoke with a Cantonese accent, being from the South. “These girls spend the whole day running. It would be good branding if visitors could see them wearing Zhe-lings.” Zhe-lings were a popular line of running shoes produced by a Hsa affiliate in Yang’s home town of Guangzhou.

“I am aware of that opportunity,” Ms. Ling said, “but bare feet is much better. We save on footwear, and studies have shown that there is actually more risk of sprains if sneakers are worn. Footwear tends to weaken the natural tendons. Running in bare feet restores them to their natural strength, critical when turning up stairs and dodging past people in hallways. Also the girls are trained to run on the balls of their feet, which reduces shock to the spine.”

“Toe stretching and other exercises are preliminaries to being accepted into the program,” Mr. Chen said. “Also in a short time the soles get toughened. I understand that in three years not a single Mailgirl has reported so much as a splinter, let alone any ankle sprains or stubbed toes.”

“I understand also that psychologically the girls have to realize that they are fully naked,” Ms. Ling continued. “And being shod one actually feels partly clothed. Further, though their soles get very tough -- by a certain point they can walk on nails or broken glass -- they also get very sensitive. There was one case where a Mailgirl reported a warm floor and it turned out the boiler below was overheating. Another time unusual vibrations, detectable through the floor only by a barefoot Mailgirl, alerted staff to an elevator issue.”

“I thought these -- Mailgirls -- were not supposed to speak except in connection with deliveries, or when spoken to,” Mr. Yang said.

“They are permitted to notify staff on their own initiative of . . . what’s the phrase here . . .” She looked down at her ipad and scrolled through the contract. “‘Dangerous or incipient conditions’.”

“So they have to be smart enough to do that,” Mr. Yang said.

“Yes,” said Ms. Ling with some irritation, “and I wish you would get over the idea that these girls are just pretty bodies. These are intelligent and accomplished young women. In America they’re simply working off a punishment of some kind, that’s all.”

“Well . . .” said Mr. Wang, a portly man with a habit of fumbling with the key chain on his three-piece suit, “I do think our system would be better. It’s bad enough the girls have numbers imprinted on, what, both hips, on the lower back, and over the left breast. We don’t want them to be like prisoners on some kind of chain gang.”

“No, of course not, and I’m glad you brought that up,” Ms. Ling said. “As you know we will draw our Chinese Mailgirl candidates from the lottery pool.” This was the group of female applicants to Beijing Technical University, the most prestigious and selective STEM college in the country, whose grades were exceptional, yet not quite high enough for automatic admission. “These girls are highly motivated to do what it takes to get into BTU.”

“Motivated enough to spend a year being displayed totally naked?” Mr. Wang said. “I know some of these girls are from the outlands, desperate to do good for their families, but . . .”

“You would be surprised what gifted, driven young people would do, especially from poor areas.”

“Even though those places tend to be the most culturally conservative!” Mr. Wang said. “I hear that out in Xining the girls don’t even like to be seen in sleeveless blouses!”

“Well we can’t help that.”

“To return to my main concern, as to objectification,” Ms. Hua said, “the girls who apply to be Mailgirls have to conform to various . . . physical standards. They will be judged by their bodies.”

“That is another thing we can’t help. Girls who are overweight, or who are not in good physical condition, or for some reason are unable to spend much of the day running, cannot be Mailgirls. This means they must be slender. Also we cannot use girls who might be thin but have very large breasts. Their breasts would be jumping around as they run and an impediment to quick service, not to mention painful for the girl.”

“What about putting the really busty girls in bras?”

“That would introduce an element of clothing, and other logistical issues that would complicate the program. Remember: the great virtue of the Mailgirls idea is simplicity. No uniforms, no footwear . . . and because they live on site, their diet can be strictly regulated and housing costs are for all practical purposes nonexistent.”

“They sleep with no pillows or blankets, apparently,” Mr. Wang said, looking at the scanned materials.

“Yes, another saving. Just towels for after they shower, which they must drop as soon as they are dry. Being covered while sleeping creates the desire for covering during the day, which must be strictly avoided.”

“This is just during business days, five days a week, right?” Mrs. Hua said.

“Yes, though they can work late if needed. They can go out on weekends though as always they must avoid clothing, and they return to the building to sleep. We will arrange places within the city where these naked girls can go without causing disruption.”

Mr. Zhou grunted and said, “One final issue and it’s so obvious that I hardly have to say it. Why here? Harbin?? The coldest city in China! A strange place to have girls running around without the benefit of clothing.”

Ms. Ling said, “The American Mailgirls have been able to scurry from building to building on days as cold as this. Only a minute or two outside does not harm them. And once the program succeeds up here, it would be hard for any other prefecture to object. After all, if naked runners are feasible in Harbin, they could be feasible anywhere in China!”

“Indeed,” Mr. Chen said. “This could easily become a national program, approved by the Ministry of Employment. And it would start right here in this room! We will be well recognized I’m sure.” There was a slight pause. In a lower voice, with an eye-flick to the blinds, he said, “I wish I knew how we got this chance. Apparently some back channel deal with the Americans, the idea is copyrighted, or something like that. But as usually happens, the Americans might come up with an idea, but bring it over here and we will do it right even when Americans are screwing it up.”

Mr. Wang snorted. “Americans. Money, but no brains.”

“No work ethic either,” Ms. Sun said. “I bet when our girls get trained they will be twice as productive as the American girls.”

“That would follow the usual pattern,” Mr. Chen said. “Though from my understanding, the Mailgirl they sent, to serve as a model for our trainees, is a star, the absolute best.” He looked at Ms. Ling. “Is she ready?”

Ms. Ling said, “She has been waiting in my office for an hour.” She pressed the intercom in front of her. “Shay-lin, please bring in the American Mailgirl.”

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