Two years after giving away the baby boy she had carried for nine months, Gao cries less. His new mom treats him well, and she finds comfort in the smiling family photos uploaded online. Besides, she has her own biological seven-year-old to care for — and she’s busy searching for another infertile couple seeking a womb.
Gao is one of China’s surrogate mothers working underground for vast sums of money to deliver children to wannabe parents. The “rent a womb” industry, which inhabits a legal gray area, came under fire in December when it emerged that a wealthy couple in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, paid nearly 1 million yuan (US$158,770) to have eight babies simultaneously, using two surrogates. For a country that limits families to one child, the babaotai chuanwen or “eight baby scandal” — unearthed when the babies’ portrait was used to advertise a photography studio — made national headlines.
As China enters the Year of the Dragon, the surrogate industry is preparing for an upswing in business with parents rushing to have a baby in the luckiest lunar year. Shanghai authorities expect 180,000 babies to be born this year, 10 percent more than last year, according to the Shanghai population commission. Countries with a strong Chinese diaspora typically experience a boom in “dragon” babies, as the creature is associated with might, intelligence and is historically linked to emperors.
Gao, who didn’t want to give her real name, also feels a sense of urgency.
“I hope I can find the next client before March, as I’m already 32 and the time left for me [to be a surrogate] is limited,” she said.
Like many surrogates, Gao is from one of China’s remote regions, in her case the most northeastern province, Heilongjiang.
Two years ago, she received 200,000 yuan for her services to an infertile, middle-aged couple from the affluent former capital, Nanjing. Surrogates can earn anything from 100,000 yuan to more than 300,000 yuan, approximately 120 times the average monthly salary of a graduate in Beijing. Though there is no specific law relating to surrogacy in China, in 2001 the industry was driven underground when the Ministry of Health banned trade in fertilized eggs and embryos, forbidding hospitals from performing surrogacy procedures.
Regulations are openly flouted. While there is no official count, the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Metropolis Weekly last year estimated that 250,000 surrogate children had been born in China in the past 30 years. More than 100 surrogacy agencies advertise online. Given that 10 percent of couples struggle with infertility — a rate that is on the rise according to the ministry — there is a potentially huge market for surrogacy in China.
“Parents living in Shanghai or Beijing have to travel to far-flung cities such as Wuhan, Harbin and Hohhot to meet a surrogate mother and find a hospital willing to finish the transplantation,” said Zhou, a surrogacy agent in Shanghai, who requested just her family name be used.
Most couple-surrogate pairings are arranged through Internet-based agencies, with agents expected to find one or two surrogates each month, earning 2,000 yuan for each, Zhou said.
During pregnancy, surrogates are often contractually obliged to reside in a “surrogate dorm,” where they share rooms, are cared for by nannies and are governed by a strict set of rules. At Zhou’s agency, violations include being awake after 9.30pm and telling friends and relatives the dorm’s whereabouts. Surrogates who flout the rules are subject to a fine (typically 500 yuan) and may lose their end of the contract.