For several years now, a small New York-based foundation has aggressively spread its conservative message in China: sex before marriage is immoral, fidelity in marriage is essential and abstinence is the only way to prevent AIDS.
Offering free seminars and workshops, the International Educational Foundation has been warmly embraced by a range of conservative Chinese officials distressed about their country's slide toward sexual freedom. In partnership with a government health education institute, the foundation has now worked in every province, and its Beijing office is in a Health Ministry building.
But in many ways the foundation is a strange bedfellow for the Communist Chinese government, which has been waging an especially harsh campaign against evangelical religious groups and spiritual movements.
The International Educational Foundation was started by the ardently anti-Communist Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the South Korean founder of the Unification Church. Its headquarters is in the church's main building in Manhattan. And its leaders are prominent members of the Unification Church.
"Many Chinese officials are very conservative, and those that support the ideas being taught by the foundation don't worry too much about what else is behind it," said Qiu Renzong, a specialist in medical ethics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has criticized the group for undermining China's AIDS prevention effort.
Critics of the group say many Chinese supporters - for the most part loyal Communists and atheists - are only dimly aware of the foundation's religious roots or what the Unification Church represents. Mr. Moon has said he is a messiah who at age 16 was asked by Jesus to continue his divine work; he says he and his wife are the "true parents" of church members, and he prefers to personally select their spouses.
But in China as in the United States, Moon-affiliated groups have consistently succeeded in promoting their conservative social agenda in even the most hostile environments, generally by tapping into the fears of local conservatives and forming alliances with them.
Playing down religion and their links to the Moon organization, the foundation uses its deep pockets to support a number of conservative social causes, and local allies tend not to ask too many questions.
Zhu Qi, a Chinese health official who has sponsored the foundation's work in China, said he was aware that it was a "church-affiliated group," although he said he was unsure which church it represented. He added that the group was "welcome, so long as they weren't doing missionary work."
"It's true that it's very unusual for Chinese organizations to cooperate with foreign religious groups," he said. "But I think the reason we can cooperate is that their Christian values are in line with traditional Chinese values. Also, they have a degree of economic strength."
This summer, the Chicago school board discovered that a similar Moon-affiliated group, the Pure Love Alliance, had been given permission by inner-city principals to teach its abstinence-only curriculum in classrooms. The chancellor of the Chicago public schools angrily banned the group when its links to the Moon organization were discovered.
Though acknowledging their ties with Mr. Moon, the foundation's leaders emphasize that their focus is on "actualizing virtues that are universal, like respectability and honesty," not on promoting religious dogma, said Alan Saunders, who is based in New York. Mr. Saunders said the group was independent from the church, supporting itself through its business ventures and donations. He added that Mr. Moon financed only large conferences.
"Many people who work with us are not Unificationists," Mr. Saunders said. "In Russia we're in 5,000 schools. Most of the teachers do not have the Unificationist perspective, so we're not endorsing religiousity."
But critics in China complain that the foundation has misled people, presenting second-rate science to promote a health policy based on conservative values rather than research. They say the group's focus on abstinence undercuts the fight against AIDS in China.
The foundation's lecture material denies that condoms can prevent pregnancy, transmission of H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, or other sexually transmitted diseases. And lecturers tell students that there is no such thing as "safe sex."
"When H.I.V. was spreading province by province through China, the Chinese government spent a lot of time working with religious groups to use morality to defend the people against AIDS," said Wan Yanhai, who runs a Chinese Web site about H.I.V. and recently co-authored a report called "The Foreign Shepherd," about the International Educational Foundation's work in China.
Others criticize the group for obscuring its religious background and particularly its ties to the Unification Church, a far-flung group with a controversial history, hundreds of intertwined businesses and some unconventional religious beliefs.
"I think most Chinese don't have a good idea of what this group is, even if they have heard it's the Unification Church," said Er Yan, the other author of "The Foreign Shepherd," who is also the general coordinator of the Chinese Society for the Study of Sexual Minorities. "They portray Mr. Moon as just another respected religious leader."
Mr. Er and others worry that the Moon organization is using the seminars to promote its own goals at the expense of sound health policy. Former members of the Unification Church say Mr. Moon has long wanted to gain a foothold in China.
"The group has a 30-year track record of using lots of money to gain access to high political positions," said Steven Hassan, a former senior member of the church who has since become one of its critics. "They create a front group, offer lots of money, set up conferences. And inveigle their way into whatever can be inveigled."
Although the foundation's teaching materials and lectures focus on secular virtues, the vocabulary and practices of the Unification Church creep into the curriculum - with occasional references to the "true parents" (Mr. Moon and his wife) and ceremonies in which foundation teachers perform mass blessings of marriages. The International Education Foundation, with offices in New York, London, Moscow and Beijing, says it has operations in more than a dozen countries, although its Web site focuses mostly on the former Soviet Union, Mongolia and China.
The Moon organization has been cultivating ties to China since the early 1990's. The foundation itself first came to China in 1994, Dr. Zhu said. Today, with Dr. Zhu's help, the foundation generally works directly with local government bureaus across China to set up seminars on abstinence and chastity.
Foreign groups are not allowed to operate in China without a local partner, and the Moon group tends to work with socially conservative Chinese bureaucrats, generally associated with the Education or the Propaganda Ministry or with the All China Women's Federation. They see the growing number of liberal, often Western-trained health officials as the enemy. The group has apparently helped overcome any misgivings with cash.
Researchers at the All China Women's Federation, who said they were aware of the group's ties with the Unification Church, said the foundation often lavished money and other perquisites on officials and cash- poor local governments.
Mid-level officials and, sometimes, their children have been treated to trips abroad to attend conferences, a rare opportunity for most Chinese college students.
This spring, the foundation flew more than 100 Chinese students to a seminar at the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, which is owned by the Unification Church. Mr. Er, the co-author of "The Foreign Shepherd," said it was an offer that many Chinese couldn't refuse.
"Even if they don't believe in the message," he said, "they see it as a free trip for their kids."