No sex please, they're Chinese

If all goes according to plan, this fall a girl somewhere in China's Yunnan province will tell her boyfriend she can't have sex with him. And he'll have an abstinence programme from the US to thank.

world Updated: Sep 04, 2010 21:15 IST
Washington Post
Washington Post
Hindustan Times

If all goes according to plan, this fall a girl somewhere in China's Yunnan province will tell her boyfriend she can't have sex with him. And he'll have an abstinence programme from the US to thank.

In Yunnan schools this year, teachers are being trained with a sex education curriculum created by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. The agreement with the Yunnan ministry of education is a milestone for the group, which has tried for four years to make inroads on abstinence in China.

It's also the result of a narrow confluence of interests: evangelical Christian groups want an entry into China. And Chinese authorities, despite the country's official atheism, want help with controlling population growth and managing rapidly shifting values.

Divorce rates have climbed steadily and migration has put increasing pressure on families, sociologists say. Wading into those waters, Focus on the Family has tried to market its marriage- and family-oriented programmes as solutions. But Communist Party officials have been suspicious at times of the group's motivations.

At an early demonstration of the abstinence curriculum two years ago — given to the Communist Youth League of China in Hangzhou — teens were supposed to end the seminar by making a virginity pledge, the hallmark of the Christian group's programme. But government officials quickly stepped in, insisting that the kids pledge to no one but the Communist Party.

"It hasn't been easy," said Deanna Go, China outreach director for the Colorado-based organisation. "Everything takes longer here."

Officials in Yunnan, however, said Focus on the Family's message of abstinence resonated with the province's conservative leadership.

"Abstinence is good for keeping the families steady and bringing down the divorce rate. And it complies with China's traditional morals," said Ma Lianhong, Yunnan's former secretary general of media, who introduced the Christian group to provincial leaders.

By Christians, for whom? Abstinence programmes have generated considerable controversy in the US and beyond. Critics point to research they say demonstrates that the approach is ineffective, and argue that efforts should be geared instead toward safe-sex education. But proponents say the strategy has the potential to reduce the rates of out-of-wedlock births and sexually transmitted diseases.

In the past decade, Focus on the Family has found relative success with its abstinence programme in other countries — notably majority Muslim nations such as Egypt and Malaysia, where its Christian brand of abstinence coincides with the teachings of Islam. Worldwide, the group says it has reached nearly 3 million teens.

China, however, has proved a tough market to crack. Premarital sex has become common in its developed cities. Even in the more rural areas, experts say, sexual mores are changing at a rapid pace. Condom companies are vying to capture a lucrative share of China's population of 1.3 billion. The United Nations, HIV-prevention nonprofits and other groups are pouring millions into safe-sex programmes. And abstinence, some say, is the last thing on Chinese teenagers' minds.

"It's hard convincing them to come to our training," said Qian Honglin, founder of a nonprofit in Beijing. "Their parents want them to come but young adults don't listen to their mothers. ... Once we get them in, however, it's easy for them to see the benefit." The programme, called 'No Apologies', took two years to translate into Chinese, and another two years to pass through government norms.

Before the Yunnan deal, the programme was mostly taught at occasional seminars by associated nonprofits in four major cities. The piecemeal approach reached only 9,000 students, according to programme coordinators.

The Yunnan agreement promises wider exposure. In the past week alone, 512 teachers from about half the school districts in the province were trained in seminars sponsored by the government.

Setting foot in China So how exactly did Focus on the Family sell the government on its programme? Like most things in China, it required a little guanxi, a term that translates roughly as having the right connections.

In 2006, Yunnan officials, who had heard some of the long-running 90-second radio commentaries by Focus founder James Dobson, inquired about airing them on their own station. That led provincial leaders to stop by Colorado during a 2007 tour of the US.

Provincial leaders told Dobson that they admired his strong stances on everything — marriage, parenting, gender issues, the sanctity of life. The only thing they disagreed with was evangelism, according to Go, the Focus official who served as translator. That exchange explains how Yunnan teachers ended up being trained in two seminars this week on how to steer teens away from sex.

The curriculum warns of consequences including STDs, teenage pregnancy and abortion. It also offers women a myriad of ways to turn boys down, in Chinese: "Do you want to bet my future on that condom?" "I'm not like everyone else." "If you want to celebrate our love, bring me roses at 7 pm and let's go to dinner." And, of course, there's the pledge.

To work in China, however, Focus has had to make a pledge of its own: no politically sensitive material, and no religion. The evangelical group says it's strictly abiding by those terms.

But the same cultural battles that have made abstinence programmes so controversial in US schools now appear to be emerging in Yunnan. This week, just hours after the announcement of the new programme in the local media, online commentators were criticising the government for teaching abstinence rather than safe sex.

Focus on the Family staff said the province had plans to pilot the abstinence curriculum at two school districts this fall, but on Thursday, provincial officials issued a statement saying the abstinence lessons will be used primarily to train teachers.

Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, said Chinese society is still adjusting to changing views on virginity. According to her research, premarital sex has jumped from 15 per cent in 1989 to more than 50 per cent.

"Now, women get married much later, so it's very hard to keep the virginity over a much longer time," Li said.

Enter Focus on the Family.

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First Published: Sep 04, 2010 21:10 IST