China has expanded the number of children married couples can have to three. Home to nearly 1.4 billion people—or more than one billion more people than the US—the country is anxious about its future. Under its current demographic trajectory, China’s labor force is shrinking, numbers which concern economists and government officials.
China first began to regulate its population in the late 1970s, under what become known as the one-child policy, although two-child exceptions were made to ethnic minorities and Han families in rural areas who had daughters first. In 2015, the government began to allow all families to have two children. Despite these changes to the law, births have fallen for four years in a row. And many share similar concerns about the lack of family leave and cost of daycare that American families do. In its announcement, the Communist party pledged to improve maternity leave and workplace protections for married couples seeking more children.
Raymond Yang has been a house church pastor for 27 years. He is currently enrolled in a PhD program at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and is a licensed counselor based in northeast China. He has done marriage and family counseling for more than 10 years.
Yang joined global media manager Morgan Lee and senior news editor Kate Shellnutt to discuss why abortion is prevalent among Chinese Christians, why the church rarely talks about sex, and how his family made the agonizing decision to have two children.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #267
Would you mind sharing when you were born and what your generation was taught about family planning in China?
Raymond Yang: I was born in 1965, and I got married in 1995, and the one-child policy started in 1979. So I was in the middle of this policy. I had an odd experience because my second child was born in 2001, and that was still in the middle of the one-child policy. I had a very strong struggle myself.
And then my generation as a whole, regardless of any Christian belief, because most people are not Christians, the majority of people in the megacity I grew up in do not really worry about that. One child is one child, but they hope to have two, and a lot of people, who are talking about having two, think maybe it’s better because any child needs siblings. And later realized that, in general, the one child will have a lot of pressure later their life to support their aging parents.
Do you remember the first time that you learned that there was a one-child policy?
Raymond Yang: Yeah, I was very excited at the time because China was very poor back in the 1970s. I grew up in a community where I would hardly see a car on the streets and the kids just played in the streets cause there were no cars. And I think I remember that when the one-child policy came out, the country was promoting the idea of slowing down the growth of the population so that people can share more resources and improving people's life. And I thought that was a great idea. I was in middle school, so I bought that idea. That's was my first impression.
When do you first remember skepticism settling in, either from yourself or people that you knew?
Raymond Yang: Probably around the late 1980s, when I started hearing people talking about raising a ”little king” inside of the family—because with one child all the resources, all the attention, go to this one child. And it becomes very frustrating, and it caused problems in schools. And I realized that's a downside of the one-child policy.
Did you hear anything specifically from the church or Christian leaders? Were the teachings or discussions around the one-child policy and the general sentiment different than you would see in society overall?
Raymond Yang: Well, I didn't become a Christian until 1990. So the first time I heard the church talking about the one-child policy was when my wife was pregnant with our second child in 2000. I remember I went to a pastor's wife and asking her, what should I do? Should I follow the law? And should I ask my wife to abort? I didn't want to abort our child; personally, I believed that was murder but I wanted to hear from other people.
So I started meeting some pastors’ wives, and I remember this pastor's wife—I honor her so much, she was being a brilliant Christian in my life—and I told her what was happening and she just calmly responded, “Just abort it.” And I was so shocked.
I was like, “Excuse me, did you say that?” And she said, “yeah.” And I asked, “Have you done it?” And she said, “oh yeah. Three, four times.” I said, “Do you feel shame or guilt or anything?” And she looked at me like, “What are you talking about? Why? This is the country's policy. There's no other way we can do.”
With that conversation, I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe a pastor’s wife was thinking this way. And she’s probably representing the majority of pastors because her husband is one of the leading pastors in many, many house churches. So then I realized that, in general, the church does not ever talk about it because if you talk about it, it's almost like you're speaking against the country's core belief and the core of the law.
I think that's one of the reasons that people do not want to talk about it, but my surprise is that morally people do not even think they need to address that.
Have you seen the conversation shift at all? Are there more people who maybe had the same conscience reaction that you had in terms of what the Church’s conversation is around abortion?
Raymond Yang: My wife and I have had the chance to meet many pastors in the past decade and have been talking about with many pastors. And I think we have brought some level of impact to different pastors, but in general, I still don't see a whole lot of changes. I haven't talked to many pastors who really care about this in China. But in my generation, I think especially educated pastors, are starting to pick up this issue and talking about the moral reasons for not having an abortion. But the majority of people really don't talk about it
What made you feel that having an abortion might be something that violated your Christian convictions?
Raymond Yang: I talked to some doctors when my wife and I had our first child. My wife had a miscarriage before our first child, and we grieved and then we talked with several doctors, some were Christian doctors. Out of curiosity, I just asked to what extend did abortion amount to physically killing a person. The answer was clear: the moment of conception was the beginning of a new life.
So I think scientifically, I believed that, and then I just cannot justify it from a Christian belief and perspective. Personally, I don't think Christians think life is a body, but rather that life is a soul with a body. So if you kill someone, you've killed a soul. That's my perspective.
You went ahead and had your second child, according to your convictions and against the recommendation that was given to you. What was the penalty for violating the one-child policy?
Raymond Yang: Well, my wife and I were in the States studying marriage counseling, and in a class, the professor raised this abortion issue, and we kind of pushed back a little bit because, from the Chinese perspective, the majority of people never thought of this as a guilt thing or shame thing at all.
And I remember the professor was very, very upset and he was pointing to my wife and said, “If you were pregnant, I don't want to see you're doing an abortion.” And then my wife was pregnant two months after that.
So we were trying to figure out how to do it, and it was right after the census in China at the end of 2000. And right after that, the one-child policy was pushed very, very hard. And I think the penalty was around 50,000 RMB to 200,000 RMB. And my income was like 1,000 RMB.
And we tried to contact our friends and families and see if we can just have this child born safely. And my sister, my in-laws, who were in remote areas, told us, “There’s no way we cannot protect you. You will be found it and will be forced to abort.”
But we had visas to come back to America, so I contacted the professor who was yelling at us in the class. I remember my wife was into the fifth month of her pregnancy, and she flew to America.
It was very, very hard, but I think the Lord carried us through. We had a very close friend, who at the time we had met before only once. And they said they wanted to take care of my wife. And the Lord just paved the whole way until the last moment when the child was born in Southern California with a doctor who volunteers to give a free service.
So it was a complete miracle.
With all you went through, what is your response to China going from that one-child policy to a two-child policy, and now a three-child policy? What do you think that means for families who are in the same position that you were back then?
Raymond Yang: First of all, the policy changing from one child to two children, and now three children, is definitely a positive thing for the families who have an unexpected pregnancy. Especially for Christians. They don't have to struggle with the abortion issue. Although I think still the majority of the Christians do not really think abortion is a sin or a crime, I think that's a positive thing for Christians. But what happens after the third child? You're coming back to that same issue.
But, meanwhile, there aren’t so many people who want to have three children. In the church context that I have, I think most of the younger generation will think about two children, but very few will think of three. So the three-children policy doesn't really impact a whole lot of people.
I’ve been teasing people saying, “we’re at three children now, what are you going to do?” And the majority of people just laugh. It’s like, “Why do you give me three?” It’s like you can have one car or two cars, but if you give me 10 cars I think, what do I need 10 cars for? That’s the general attitude for now.
At the time that you had your second child, you were also leading a house church. How did having a second child affect how people talked about having children and defying the government? How did that change that conversation in your church context?
Raymond Yang: I think it had a very positive impact on our church. Here’s the situation of our church: I'm the oldest one in the church, therefore we'll see a lot of people going through the same trajectory as we have gone. So it's almost like we are setting up an example.
It turned out that at least five or six families experienced a second child with an unexpected pregnancy. And they all gave birth later in different formats, and some families had three children. We have one family, they have four children.
And my wife has said, “If I go to heaven, I think the biggest reward for me is a group of little children coming to me and saying, ‘Thank you for saving my life.’” Because we have given our testimonies multiple times and try to convince them not to do an abortion.
How does the church generally speak about family planning? What are some of the teachings regarding sex and children? How are Christians encouraged to think about those things, and what type of resources exist?
Raymond Yang: The way that China's government managed the one-child policy was very, very powerful. In an American context, it’s like a federal law and then the federal management, therefore local governments do not have any authority of making any exceptions or protecting anybody. So people have an understanding that this is a reality that you cannot change or any discussion around the issue doesn't help at all.
The majority of people really do not talk about it. And then after a certain number of years, people just accepted it as a reality that you cannot have a second child. People just passively accept that as a reality. Once you have one unexpected pregnant pregnancy, then abortion is the only option. And people don't really talk about that either.
And therefore, having sex or preparing, China does not talk about sex or birth control inside of a church. I think that's a shame issue. Even teenagers dating is not talked about in a church. The pastors just don't feel comfortable talking about it.
I was invited to a church, and I remember those students were very excited to listen and talk about sex and those are issues. And their teachers and counselors just shied away. They were trying to find a place to hide their faces. That's the general situation.
The announcement specifically stated that married couples are the ones that can have three children. What is life is like for single parents, specifically single mothers in China?
Raymond Yang: America gives a lot of benefits and attention to single mothers, probably because there are a lot of single mothers here. Versus in China, there are not so many single mothers.
First of all, abortion is widely welcomed, it's almost free, and is so easy to get done. The girls just walk into the hospital and walk out without any burden. There's no shame or guilt or anything. So there are not so many single mothers.
In our church is one single mother who got pregnant before she became a Christian, but soon after that she converted and the Christians around her told her she should not abort that child. And she ended up becoming a single mother. So she has to face a certain level of shame, cause people in the community will point their fingers.
Since they aren’t many single mothers in China, the communities are not ready to help them, the church is not ready to help them either. It's not a very common scenario.
What is the impact on those who grew up under the one-child policy? What type of issues have they had to struggle and wrestle with as a result of not having siblings and having a lot of pressure put on them by their society and their parents?
Raymond Yang: What I see is loneliness. It is one of the biggest issues for those one-child children. And I think the one-child children grew up very self-centered. So they lack the attitude of supporting each other or serving each other.
What is the impression or cultural assumptions about families that somehow had a bunch of children? Is there baggage or a stereotype in China around having big families?
Raymond Yang: I really cannot talk about families in rural areas, cause I have only lived in the city. But in cities, if a family has three or four children, one of the reasons is that they can afford so many children. So it's seen as a financial advantage in people's eyes. So most people would admire those families.
I think in most families, when they come to the point where they cannot financially afford to have one more child, they probably just sneak out and do an abortion.
What do you imagine your ministry looking like when you return to China?
Raymond Yang: My wife and I are both trained and educated in Christian education. We want to provide Christians with education, especially around families, so that people can learn to live out a good Christian life in their families, and they can help other people to know how to live a life that is abundantly enriched.