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October 26, 2009
The Catholic Church in China: Part II—Houses of Perseverance
By Steven J. Balla *

By Steven J. Balla *

Qiji is 4 years old and comes from a village in rural China. She is smart. Tell her what a particular animal is called and after only a single listen she can gleefully point out a “bird” whenever a magpie swoops by.

Qiji has no official right to an education. It is quite possible that she will never see the inside of even the most basic rural classroom.

Qiji is not her real name. Qiji is the Mandarin word for “miracle.” And it is a miracle that Qiji was ever born.

The Catholic Church in China is more than a collection of beautiful old cathedrals filled to the brim with joyous worshipers. All across the country, priests, nuns and the laity pray together and celebrate Mass and the sacraments in apartments and other seemingly ordinary places. It is in these places, as the four of us—Desi (my wife), Julie (our 13-year-old daughter), Zoli (our 11-year-old son), and I—found during the course of a year of living in China, where much of the extraordinary work of advocating for and protecting life from conception to natural death occurs on an everyday basis.

To say that there are obstacles to establishing and sustaining a vigorous pro-life movement in China is nothing if not a serious understatement. For three decades, China has unabashedly pursued a policy of restricting many families to a single child, or two children at most, as when rural couples first give birth to a daughter. This policy has left in its wake a string of social ills, such as gender-selective abortions that have tragically produced an estimated deficit of more than 30 million females under the age of 20.

Such social ills are especially pervasive in China’s vast countryside, where local officials are under immense pressure to conform to the dictates of jihua shengyu zhengce (officially translated as the “policy of family planning.”) In the village where Qiji was born, women of childbearing age are required to submit to sonograms every three months. Pregnancies deemed to be in violation of the law are terminated, regardless of the wishes of the woman who is carrying the baby.

It was this atmosphere of intimidation and fear, in which community and even family members are pitted against one another, that characterized the world into which Qiji was born. Qiji has two older brothers. Already in violation of the one-child policy, Qiji’s mother took to hiding at home and saying four to five Rosaries a day, in the hope that her baby would somehow be carried to term and safely delivered. Qiji’s own father and grandmother expressed indifference and outright hostility toward these prayers, preferring instead that the pregnancy be terminated and the family be spared the steep fine that was actively being sought by family planning officials.

Several years later, and pregnant with a fourth child, Qiji’s mother, facing an utterly desperate situation at home and in the village, found her way into the open and loving arms of an informal network of religious and lay pro-life advocates. This network, which stretches across China from north to south and east to west, provides a safe place to stay for women who are pregnant out of wedlock, carrying their second baby or beyond, or otherwise living in violation of legal or cultural norms regarding childbirth in China.

In many ways, these pregnant women and their babies live in what can only be described as typical Chinese fashion. Delicious meals of jiaozi (dumplings) filled with meat, corn, and other vegetables are prepared and eaten communally. Such traditional fixtures of countryside living occur alongside contextually less common spiritual practices, from daily prayers to the regular celebration of Mass and the sacraments. For Qiji’s mother, who in 2004 was baptized into the Catholic Church, this safe, comfortable, and Christian environment provided not only relief from the dysfunction of village family planning, but also the opportunity to grow even stronger in devotion to the sanctity of human life in all of its forms.

As for Qiji herself, when she arrived with her mother, the threadbare clothes she was wearing were all too vivid indicators of the extreme poverty her family endures as it grows in the face of government condemnation and the disapproving attitudes of many fellow villagers. At first, Qiji would scream inconsolably at the top of her lungs when faced with the prospect of taking a shower. The sources of Qiji’s terror were shampoo and soap, neither of which her mother makes use of when giving her children a bath. Before long though, Qiji had figured out that if she took a wash cloth, placed it over her face, and kept her eyes closed, she could make it through an entire shower without shedding so much as a single tear. Shushu, wo mei you ku! (“Uncle Steve, I didn’t cry!”)

Qiji, it goes without saying, faces difficulties that are more fundamental than bathing without fear of the sting of shampoo and soap. Much of what many of us take for granted—a childhood of playing in the sunshine, a lifetime of literacy—are wonders that Qiji has thus far enjoyed in only the briefest of glimpses. Yet, because of the devotion and perseverance of her mother, Qiji has already beaten the seemingly insurmountable odds she faced as an unborn baby. Despite so many efforts to the contrary, Qiji is alive. And, now, with the material and spiritual help of China’s nascent pro-life movement, Qiji has been joined in this world by a beautiful baby brother.

Steven J. Balla is associate professor of political science, public policy and public administration, and international affairs at George Washington University.  He is the co-author of Bureaucracy and Democracy: Accountability and Performance.  He spent the 2008-2009 academic year as a Fulbright Scholar at the Peking University School of Government in Beijing.  He and his family's blog, where they chronicled their year of living in China, can be found at an-american-family.blogspot.com.
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