When it comes to making babies, China is easily one of the world’s most complex nations. Some of the reports coming from the People’s Republic call to mind the Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World, such as a scheme to allegedly engineer “genius” babies with the help of DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people. The Middle Kingdom has also been accused of making “stamina pills” from powder obtained from stillborn and aborted babies.
Then there are myriad tales of the ways couples skirt around the nation’s contentious and oftentimes hazy one-child policy. This was colorfully illustrated in December 2011 via the “eight babies” scandal, which hit the news and blew the lid open on the nation’s “rent a womb” industry. This case involved a couple from Guangzhou who paid almost one million yuan (about $163,000) to have two surrogate mothers give birth to eight children. The baby scandal generated a media storm when the eight toddlers were featured in a portrait to advertise a photography studio.
The reason for the outcry is simple: China’s “family planning policies” apply to all. Even members of the Chinese Communist Party face possible disciplinary action if caught with more than one child. For most couple who violate the one-child policy, the consequences are grim, ranging from forced abortions, to sterilization and hefty fines. Tragically, these policies are often enforced with the greatest vigor in the nation’s poor countryside.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Despite the risks, Chinese couples are renting out wombs overseas as well. According to a recent report by Reuters, a growing number of well-heeled mainlanders are shelling out up to $120,000 for American women to carry and give birth to their children. Similar to the scandalous eight babies of late 2011, this new trend of chartering wombs overseas addresses the one-child policy, but goes further by also offering the promise of U.S. citizenship for the child and – one day down the road – green cards for the parents.
Demand for surrogate mothers in America has reportedly spiked in the past two years, alongside a rise in fertility clinics and surrogacy agencies that are launching Chinese-language websites and employing staff who speak Mandarin. Both American and Chinese firms are cashing in. One example: Boston-based Circle Surrogacy is opening a California office to cater to clients across the Pacific, and is considering hiring a representative in Shanghai. From the other side, Shanghai entrepreneur Tony Jiang and wife Cherry decided to launch their own surrogacy agency called DiYi Consulting in 2012, after they had a positive experience with a surrogate from California who gave birth to their daughter and then twins.
The Jiangs have already helped 75 Chinese couples in search of American surrogates. The vast majority of these couples opt to have their own biological children, although some decide to work with egg donors, from tall blondes to Ivy League grads of Chinese ancestry.
Giving birth to a second child overseas is technically illegal in China, but enforcement is patchy. But would-be parents also confront serious logistical issues. For one, second children have major issues when attempting to enroll in China’s national healthcare system or receive discounted tuition at public schools. Further, these children need visas and residence permits to live in China at all – just as any foreign resident does.
Given that these parents are among the nation’s wealthiest, these hurdles seem minor. After all, the parents who are paying American women to carry their children are being targeted by agencies who advertise the practice as a cheaper alternative to the EB-5 visa. This visa requires a minimum investment in a job-creating business of $500,000.
By comparison, when the costs of the standard surrogacy deal ($120,000 – $200,000) are combined with plane tickets and other expenses, families can relocate to the U.S. for roughly $300,000, according to one agent. But in fact, those costs are just the beginning. Then there are agency fees (roughly $17,000-$20,000), legal fees (upwards of $13,000) and of course fees to the surrogates themselves ($22,000-$30,000). And then there are hospital and other associated costs ($9,000-$16,000). In short, the trend may be real, but in light of the costs involved it’s not likely to result in a huge wave of Chinese immigration to the U.S.
Zhai Zhenwu, director of Renmin University’s school of sociology and population, did not mince words on the issue of inequality surrounding this practice, telling The Guardian, “It's unfair to poor citizens to whom it seems the rich can have as many children as they want. It's another negative signal to society that money can buy anything, when we should be teaching people that the golden key can't open every door."