Celebrity Scandal Inspires Reflection on Surrogacy in China

A gossipy breakup scandal became an internet-wide debate about the morality of surrogacy after it was revealed that a former celebrity couple secretly begat children through surrogacy in the United States. Producer Zhang Heng accused actress Zheng Shuang of denying her maternity and abandoning their children. In a leaked audiotape, Zheng seemed to lament that the surrogate pregnancy was too far along to abort. The saga has earned a staggering 4 billion views on Weibo. At The New York Times, Alexandra Stevenson and Cao Li reported on how the couple’s breakup last month sparked a debate about surrogacy:

On Tuesday, China Central Television, the main state broadcaster, issued its own condemnation of surrogacy on Weibo. “Its disregard for life is heinous,” it said.

Without mentioning Ms. Zheng’s name, the broadcaster said surrogacy could lead to wanton discarding of a fetus, for example if the couple wanted a boy instead of a girl. In the 1990s, China made it illegal to identify the sex of a fetus in an effort to prevent gender-based abortions, which have led to millions more men than women because of a traditional preference for boys.

[…] But the scandal comes at a time when some people in China are rethinking those notions. China’s declining birthrate has prompted some women’s rights activists, academics and others to question the country’s restrictions on reproductive techniques like surrogate births and egg freezing. Women’s groups also cite the horrors of the former one-child policy, which led to forced abortions and government intrusion into women’s reproductive choices to control the population, which is the world’s biggest at 1.4 billion people.

[…] Amid the rising public anger toward Ms. Zheng, women’s rights groups have expressed frustration that Mr. Zhang is receiving less criticism. Women are often blamed for reproductive decisions made with their partners, said Feng Yuan, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of a women’s rights nonprofit group in Beijing, leading to tighter restrictions on the services women use. [Source]

Before the Zheng Shuang case exploded across the internet, a separate surrogacy story involving China’s least privileged citizens dominated Weibo’s trending topics. In 2016, an impoverished woman in Sichuan signed an under-the-table surrogacy contract with a couple from Inner Mongolia, agreeing to carry their child for $26,200. During her pregnancy, the surrogate mother learned she had syphilis. The couple cancelled the surrogacy contract, yet the surrogate mother carried the child to term, leaving her as sole guardian. At Whats On Weibo, Manya Koetse reported on the details behind tragic case:

But there was one major issue: money. Wu already could not afford the hospital admittance fee, let alone the 12,000 yuan ($1850) in hospital bills she had to pay after needing a C-section delivery. To pay for her medical bills, Wu was forced to take desperate measures and ended up selling her baby’s birth certificate. Through the internet’s black market, she found someone who would pay 20,000 yuan ($3085) for it.

[…] Once the baby was born, things looked up for Wu. She soon married a kind man who was willing to raise baby girl ‘Xiao Rang’ (小让, alias) together with her, and the child’s congenital syphilis was cured. But Xiao Rang still had no birth certificate, and thus no hukou.

[…] Without a hukou, the child cannot attend kindergarten, and will not be able to go to school – she will be a heihaizi (黑孩子, lit. ‘black child’), an ‘illegal child’ not registered anywhere

[…] “Although surrogacy is illegal, it is a blank space in the criminal law. Surrogacy exploits women, and it is a serious violation of social ethics and morals. Taking part in surrogacy should be severely punished. If the freedom is not restricted, it will surely lead to exploitation of the weak by the strong,” [wrote legal expert Zhang San on Weibo] [Source]

Commercial surrogacy—whereby one woman is paid to bear another person’s child—is quasi-legal. China banned surrogacy in 2001, but repealed the ban in 2015. Demand for surrogacy rose sharply after the One Child Policy was repealed in 2016; many older couples no longer able to conceive wanted a second child. Depictions of surrogacy in popular media are controversial. “Ten Months With You,” a short film depicting a surrogate mother’s relationship with her fetus directed by Chen Kaige of “Farewell My Concubine” fame, was lambasted on the Chinese internet for its morally agnostic stance on surrogacy. Liu Changqiu told Sixth Tone, a state media outlet, “If surrogacy has to be presented to the public on TV, it should be handled more appropriately[…] For example, mentioning a legal penalty at the end. Otherwise, it could result in a negative societal influence.” The film was subsequently pulled offline. At the South China Morning Post, Alice Yan and Ellen Connolly reported on the public’s reaction to the film, including those who pushed back against the deluge of negative comments:

Although the film, which stars Hong Kong actress Myolie Wu Hang-yee, mentions several times that surrogacy is illegal, many viewers believe it does not condemn the activity fiercely enough. Instead, they say it romanticises surrogacy by depicting the protagonists’ feelings in a delicate way and presenting a happy ending.

[…] “They did something illegal but didn’t receive any punishment. What kind of values does this film convey?” wrote a user on Weibo.

[…]A film reviewer said films such as this were designed to prompt discussion and debate.

“Chinese movies are doomed! Previously you [the public] complained that no Chinese movies talk about reality, trailing South Korea in this aspect. But now there is a movie [about reality], but you say it has the wrong values. Wake up, public! Films are meant to inspire people to think and discuss.” [Source]

Surrogacy is one of the few options open to member of the Chinese LGBTQ+ community who wish to have children. At the South China Morning Post, Guo Rui wrote about same-sex Chinese couples’ embrace of surrogacy:

Aside from sham marriages between gay men and lesbians, commercial surrogacy was the only option, said Ah Qiang, director of the Guangzhou-based organisation PFLAG, an organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, their families and allies.

“The existing adoption law is heterocentric and unfriendly to gay people. Generally, there is no way for gay people to adopt children domestically,” Ah Qiang said.

For those who can afford it, the United States is a popular choice. George Luo, who runs a surrogacy agency based in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, said it cost 1.4 million yuan (US$196,000) to have a surrogate child in the US. [Source]

Couples with means have looked abroad for surrogate mothers, most notably in the United States, Ukraine, and Southeast Asia. According to The AFP, the average cost of surrogacy is $35,000-$50,000 in Ukraine and Georgia, $73,000 in Russia, and $200,000 in California. At The Guardian, Zeyi Yang wrote about the international surrogate economy that has risen from gay Chinese couples’ demand for children:

In the five years since Xu and Li’s journey began, information about surrogacy has become easily accessible in China. Despite the censorship of words like “surrogacy” – which is officially banned in China, although the law isn’t always strictly enforced – low-profile sharing and guidance flourish in online forums. Commercial ads for assisted reproductive technology have grown into a major sponsorship source for local LGBTQ+ organizations and apps. On the Chinese messaging app WeChat, groups for gay dads and future dads have mushroomed. Xu and Li joined the first such group chat in 2016, which has a self-explanatory name: “Group for Dads of American Babies”. In 2019, the group had more than 100 members, to whom more than 10 babies were born that year.

Several American surrogacy agencies and fertility clinics told me that they’d seen a surge in Chinese clients, starting in around 2013, with gay people making up a significant portion of the clientele. The number of Chinese clients at the Fertility Center of Las Vegas “exploded” in 2013, according to Joanne Zhou, the center’s director of China operations: “Before that, we would only have a few Chinese clients annually, but from then on, we had double digits of them every month.”

[…] The demand has lured many American agencies and clinics to expand their outreach to China through more advertisements and offline consultations. It has also created a new Chinese domestic market that specifically helps to connect the LGBTQ+ community to resources in the United States. Intermediary companies, many founded by the early surrogacy clients, provide packages of services, including everything from translation to references for attorneys and nannies. Having an American baby through surrogacy has now become a popular and accessible life goal for urban gay men in China. [Source]

The coronavirus pandemic, which almost entirely halted international travel to and from China, caused havoc in the international surrogate industry. At Sixth Tone, Ni Dandan and Zhang Shiyu wrote about the baby backlog caused by the halts on international travel:

But the trade has descended into chaos in 2020, as global travel bans divided families and transformed Russian orphanages into “baby dens” housing dozens of stranded Chinese newborns. And though some countries have tentatively relaxed their border restrictions over recent months, hundreds — and possibly thousands — of infants remain marooned overseas.

[…] “Around 70 of our customers saw their babies stranded in Ukraine earlier this year,” a consultant at the company who declined to give her full name for privacy reasons, told Sixth Tone. “But most of them have managed to get them back.”

[…] Qiu, manager of a Guangzhou-based agency, said he was now encouraging his clients to seek surrogates within China. Before the pandemic, his business mainly worked with surrogates in Georgia and Kazakhstan.

“It’s more affordable to have a baby through surrogacy in those two countries. In Georgia, the whole process costs around 350,000 yuan, while the price is between 450,000 yuan and 480,000 yuan in Kazakhstan,” said Qiu, who declined to reveal his full name for privacy reasons. “Domestically, it costs around 550,000 yuan.” [Source]


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