Selling change in China

November 16, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

NEW YORK -- When Agnes Nixon, doyenne of the American soap opera, was once asked to share the recipe of her sudsy success, she offered up three ingredients: make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait.

It's not clear if Agnes had any purpose for "All My Children" beyond selling detergent. But somewhere along the way, it became clear that if soaps could sell soap, they could sell social change.

Enter a young Ms. Greenleaf onto the Chinese television screen. On a rainy fall morning, I am sitting beside Chen Sheng Li of the State Family Planning Commission of the People's Republic of China, watching a dramatic -- oh well, melodramatic episode of "Ordinary People."

This is the series that kept some 11 million Chinese glued to their television sets last June, making it the No. 1 soap in the nation and No. 3 show overall. The theme was family life, but deep down, the message was family planning.

On the screen, Ms. Greenleaf (as her name is translated into English) is being rowed off to her marriage to Mr. Wrong. She has been, quite literally, sold down the river, so that the family will have the bucks to buy a wife for her young brother.

Then her true love arrives -- too late! too late! -- with his city-earned dollars to buy her back. Mr. Wrong is suffering from wounded pride and rage. Disaster all around.

One child policy

What exactly do Ms. Greenleaf's wedding woes have to do with family planning? Especially in China where the population growth has been restrained by government fiat? The one-child policy of rewards and punishment has given the giant Asian nation a bad international name and made many Chinese wary of all family planning messages.

Today, China is trying something different. As Dr. Chen says through his translator, "Instead of imposing government policies, we are trying to change attitudes."

This mix of entertainment and education is part of a larger world effort to try and counter traditional cultures with modern "social dramas."

This idea, pioneered in Mexico during the 1970s, has taken on a new edge as the world's population passes the 6 billion mark. The question is how to limit population without limiting the right of a family to make these most personal decisions.

In China, much of the resistance to small families comes, not surprisingly, from the age-old cultural preference for sons. In this climate, wives are pressured to keep having children until they have a son.

So the theme of "Ordinary People" is about the woes and injustice that come from the bias toward sons. Not only Ms. Greenleaf's forced marriage but also one sister's marital troubles after having four daughters, and another sister's longing for the education allotted her brother. As David Andrews, president of Population Communications International, the group behind these shows, says, "We are trying to get across the tragedy of that preference in the soap opera and make having a girl child cause for equal celebration."

That's a tall cultural order for a small drama. But the soap opera-tion of PCI and other groups has become a potent and popular tool of family planning in many countries. University of New Mexico researchers found that 25 percent of the new clients at family planning clinics in Tanzania were motivated by the radio soap opera there.

Of course, a soap opera may sound like another kind of propaganda, even if, as Mr. Andrews cheerfully adds, "it's good propaganda." One person's propaganda is another person's teaching tool."

I'm not sure what the half-life of a televised soap opera is against the weight of tradition. Even Dr. Chen, a progressive by Chinese standards, says "this won't happen over night." But after decades of top-down authoritarian policies, he acknowledges "It's no use to give lectures." It's better to tell stories.

In stories now in the planning stage, our gal Greenleaf has a daughter, dumps Mr. Wrong, and shows that a woman can become successful in her own right. "Ordinary People" will confront the issues of educating girls, teen-age pregnancy, even AIDS.

But lurking behind the saga is the question that 11 million Chinese tune in to watch. Can a young woman from a small town ever find happiness, love, success -- and of course a small family -- in the big China? The answer? They're still waiting.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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