Chinese actress 'abandons' surrogate babies in US, sparking huge online condemnation of surrogacy
Published: Jan 20, 2021 01:02 AM

Photo: VCG

A high-profile Chinese actress who was accused by her ex-boyfriend of abandoning her two surrogate children in the US drew widespread condemnation in China on Tuesday. The case also brought the legitimacy and morality of surrogacy - which is illegal in China - into the spotlight once again, with the majority of Chinese netizens voicing strong disapproval, in spite that surrogacy has been in increasing demand in the Chinese society.

The surrogacy scandal involved actress Zheng Shuang who recently became an ambassador for Italian luxury brand Prada; Prada terminated her deal on Tuesday due to the scandal. Her ex-boyfriend Zhang Heng said in a Weibo post on Monday that he and his two babies with Zheng are currently stuck in the US. 

An audio clip provided by someone claiming to be a friend of Zhang's was released by NetEase on Monday night, in which Zheng screamed obscenities while complaining that in the case of the couple's second child - then seven month in pregnancy - it was too late for the US surrogate mother to terminate the pregnancy. Zhang's father in the audio clip apparently suggested giving up the babies. Zhang's friend told the media that the children could not return to China as Zheng refused to cooperate with related legal processes.

Zheng has not yet personally verified whether the babies are hers, but birth certificates posted online showed the babies are a boy born in December 2019 in Colorado and a girl born in January 2020 in Nevada, both with Zheng and Zhang named as the parents.

The related topics on the scandal and surrogacy occupied the top four topics on Sina Weibo on Tuesday, with more than 4.2 billion views in total. Several state organs also criticized in the media Zheng's irresponsible behavior, as part of and also strengthening the online chorus against surrogacy. 

"China prohibits all kinds of surrogacy. Surrogacy and abandoning children are against social morals and public order… human lives are not toys," the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China said in a post on its official account on Tuesday.

On Tuesday night, the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee commented on Zheng's surrogacy scandal, pointing out she takes advantage of the legal loopholes and is definitely not innocent.

According to Article 3 of the Chinese Administrative Measures on Human Assisted Reproductive Technology, promulgated and implemented in 2001, medical institutions and personnel shall not implement any form of surrogacy.

Zhang Jing, a Beijing-based matrimonial lawyer, told the Global Times that the scandal over Zheng Shuang shed light on a worrying legal gray area. While surrogacy is illegal in China, people who pay for such services in other countries where surrogacy is allowed won't be held accountable by the law in China, Zhang Jing said. 

But according to the Law on the Application of Laws in Foreign-related Civil Relations, Zheng Shuang's abandonment of her children is subject to the jurisdiction of Chinese laws, said the lawyer.

China's Criminal Law stipulates that people may face a sentence of no more than five years for committing the crime of abandonment, including refusing to fulfill his or her duty to support an aged or sick person, a minor, or any other person who cannot live independently.

However, in reality it's hard to hold people accountable for the crime of abandonment. In Zheng's case, even if the children can be proven to be hers after a paternity test, the children's father is still taking care of the children, so it's almost impossible to hold the children's mother accountable for abandonment, Zhang Jing said.

In a post by Zheng on her Weibo account in response to the scandal, she said she did not "violate the country's instructions" and that she "respected all laws and regulations abroad."

Several experts told the Global Times on Tuesday that surrogacy, whether legal or not, should not be encouraged as it is an objectification of women and could lead to many problems, such as the abandonment of children. Others pointed out that it's also necessary to pay attention to the plight of surrogate mothers. 

Nurses care for babies born to surrogate mothers at Kiev's Venice hotel on May 15, 2020. Photo: VCG

A lucrative chain 

As medical institutions and professionals are banned from assisting surrogacy for reproduction purposes in China, many people seek surrogate services in other countries where this practice is legal. 

Among them, Ukraine is one of the largest surrogacy destinations for Chinese parents. Industry insiders estimate that each year 2,500-3,000 children are born through surrogacy in the country, of whom one third are for Chinese customers, reported the South China Morning Post in June 2020.

Money is a major reason why Chinese customers choose Ukraine, a Kiev-based surrogacy agency called Ulovebaby which specifically targets Chinese clients told the Global Times on Tuesday. 

The agency sells the surrogacy services at around $50,000, said a staffer surnamed Kang, who works at the agency's China office in Central China's Hunan Province. 

"The price fluctuates according to clients' requirements," Kang told the Global Times on Tuesday, saying a package that guarantees "100 percent success" is more expensive.

The surrogacy price in Ukraine is "only one-fifth of that in the US," according to the agency's website. 

Kang declined to give the number of the agency's Chinese clients, but more than 12,500 potential customers have consulted the agency, its website shows.

Kang and his Chinese colleagues frequently promote their surrogacy services on Chinese social media platforms. Three or four times a week, they post pictures or short videos of pregnant Caucasian women, newborn babies and pregnancy test reports on WeChat, boasting that both the surrogate mothers and the babies they give birth to are healthy and "high-quality."

For those wannabe parents like the LGBT community who also need to purchase eggs or sperm, in a post in October 2020, Kang's company shared a photo of a young woman along with her age, height and blood type. "Look at the high-quality 'egg girl' we newly signed," read the post. "Her condition is so good that last time 25 eggs were taken from her body."

Kang said his agency takes care of the surrogate mothers. "We arrange more health checks for them than Chinese domestic maternity hospitals do," he told the Global Times.

Liu Ningguang, general manager for China of New York-based Global Fertility Genetics, which provides fertility treatment and surrogacy services, told the Global Times that many Chinese people have chosen to go to the US for legal surrogacy in recent years, given the relatively standardized commercial surrogacy practices in the country.

A surrogacy contract typically defines the legal responsibilities of both parties. The average cost of legal surrogacy, which includes clinics, drugs, surrogates and attorney fees, is around $170,000, he said. 

Prospective parents from China are required to complete a paternity test, birth certificate and travelling permit after the birth of the baby before taking it back to China legally, according to Liu.

During the pandemic, the surrogacy industry in many countries has been hit by visa suspensions and travel bans, leaving babies stranded as expectant parents were unable to enter the country. But this hasn't been evident in the US market, Liu said. 

In those cases, prospective parents can ask for a temporary guardian in the US to avoid the baby being stuck in a medical facility, he added. 

While such practices are illegal in China, the Global Times found a surrogate agency in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, in an undercover investigation. A member of staff surnamed Yang working there said the surrogacy process is simple. "Before coming here, you need to do a physical check-up at hospital so as to know your own health condition, and then come here to have an ovulation induction."

"If you want a male child, you should choose the third-generation test-tube baby technology, which costs about 500,000 yuan," Yang said. According to him, usually the surrogate mother can get 180,000 to 300,000 yuan after the baby is born. 

A surrogate mother looks at baby posters in Shanghai. Photo: IC

Danger to women, children

Luo Ruixue, an expert on feminism and gender equality, told the Global Times on Tuesday that many women would choose to become a surrogate mother in order to improve their living conditions, but in most cases they are not informed about the risks in surrogacy. 

"Unlike other work involving mental or physical labor, surrogacy brings great risks," she said. 

Providing surrogacy service for reproduction is illegal in China, and there have been torrents of criticism and anger online in China against surrogacy following Zheng Shuang's scandal. Most people disapprove of surrogacy as they hate seeing babies become a traded commodity, Luo said. "People are afraid that if surrogacy is allowed in China, the uterus becomes a production tool that can be rented and sold. In the situation of gender inequality, it might be possible that more women will become surrogate mothers, which involves the objectification of women."

The surrogacy industry could also provide services such as picking genders and genes and there may be unwanted babies that are abandoned, Luo said.

There are also many hidden risks for those seeking surrogacy services overseas. A Chinese woman surnamed Lin told the Global Times on Tuesday that she paid 450,000 yuan ($69,200) for a baby delivered by a surrogate Cambodian mother in 2016, but when the baby was brought back to China it was found that it was suffering from brain atrophy.

She blamed the company for failing to provide necessary living conditions for the Cambodian surrogate mother, which she believes to have directly caused her son's illness. But when Lin contacted the agency, they simply said they would "replace her baby with a new one or arrange another surrogate birth, as long as it could be verified that it was their fault."

Lin told the Global Times that she knew of other people who were enquiring about surrogacy but were worried about whether the medical conditions were up to standard, especially in some Southeast Asian countries. "And the selection of surrogate mothers is not cautious and transparent as far as I know."

"Instead of simply supporting or opposing surrogacy, we should focus more on the women driven by poverty to become a surrogate mother," Chen Yaya, a research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.

"Surrogacy is a complicated topic that has deep social roots. Strictly banning or legalizing it may worsen the plight of these surrogate mothers in some aspects," she told the Global Times. "We need more investigation and research to resolve this dilemma."