Abstinence education: breaking into the Chinese market

Carolyn Moynihan
10 Sep 2010
Reproduced with Permission

There is an interesting alignment of seemingly quite different stars in China: Christian-inspired abstinence education and official population policy.

America's Focus on the Family has won the ear of the Yunnan provincial ministry of education and is training teachers to educate Chinese teenagers about abstaining from sex before marriage, reports the Washington Post. The Chinese government wants young people to delay marriage and having a child, but delaying sex is another matter, especially as the country becomes more urbanised and susceptible to global trends.

Of course, there is competition for the huge China sex-ed "market":

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.

How did Focus on the Family get its foot in the door, then? Through "guanxi", or 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.

So the deal is: no politically sensitive material, and no religion. That would mean, I guess, no questioning the one-child policy, and no moral judgements on abortion.

Even so, the "abstinence debate" has arrived with Focus and there is criticism even from locals of the group's message:

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.

Since that story was published, USA Today has run a story about possible further relaxations of the one-child policy in the wake of a census now taking place. Authorities do not have good data on birthrates, and experts have been warning for several years that the male-female gender gap that has widened during 30 years of strict population control will have serious social consequences for the country.

Ironically, and sadly, the freedom for more couples to have a second child (and they are not talking about more!) comes at a time when many Chinese think they cannot afford to. "Small-scale experiments in a handful of cities have already shown that birth rates do not necessarily rise if the restrictions are eased," said one expert.