Abstinence program in China a milestone for U.S. evangelicals

The Washington Post/September 3, 2010

Beijing - 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 program from the United States 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 Focus on the Family, which has struggled for four years to make inroads on abstinence in China.

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

Chinese society has undergone major changes in recent decades, with divorce rates climbing steadily and migration and modernization putting increasing pressure on families, sociologists say. Wading into those waters, Focus on the Family has tried to market its marriage- and family-oriented programs 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 abstinence program. 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 organization. "Everything takes longer here."

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

"Nowadays, teenagers have too many different channels for learning about sex," said Ma Lianhong, Yunnan's former secretary general of media, who introduced the Christian group to provincial leaders. "Even if you don't talk about it, they will just learn about it quietly by themselves, which is even more dangerous. . . . Abstinence is good for keeping the families steady and bringing down the divorce rate. And it complies with China's traditional morals."

Abstinence programs have generated considerable controversy in the United States 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 program 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 groups and others are pouring millions into safe-sex programs. 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 group that is working with Focus on the Family 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 program, called "No Apologies," took two years for staff to translate into Chinese and another two years to pass through government regulations.

Before the Yunnan deal, the program was mostly taught at occasional seminars by associated nonprofit groups in four major cities. The piecemeal approach reached only 9,000 students, according to program 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 to teach the curriculum in seminars sponsored by the government.

So how exactly did Focus on the Family sell the government on its program? 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 on the Family 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 United States.

Provincial leaders told Dobson during their visit 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 on the Family 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 myriad 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 p.m. and let's go to dinner."

And, of course, there's the pledge.

To work in China, however, Focus on the Family 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.

This week's seminar was mostly financed by the province, and Focus on the Family supplied the training.

It is hard to say whether the program will make an impact. The same cultural battles that have made abstinence programs so controversial in U.S. schools now appear to be emerging in Yunnan.

This week, just hours after the announcement of the new program in the local media, online commentators were criticizing the government for teaching abstinence rather than safe sex with condoms.

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 percent in 1989 to more than 50 percent. "Now, women get married much later, so it's very hard to keep the virginity over a much longer time," Li said.

Go said Focus on the Family's program might be a tough sell for many in China but said her goal is simply to let teenagers know the option still exists. "We want them to know that it doesn't matter what other people say or do," she said. "They are allowed to make their own choices."

Staff researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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