A Woman’s Quest for Motherhood. A Cross-Border Trade in Babies.
ZHEJIANG, East China — Jin Lifen never bothered to explain how she had suddenly become the mother of twins. One day in 2017, she showed up in her village, Zaokeng, with two infant daughters, and paid no mind to the puzzled stares and hushed gossip. In the conservative community, set in the hilly interior of Zhejiang province, an unmarried woman having children is itself cause for consternation. Moreover, some of the villagers had heard the whispers that Jin was infertile. The out-of-the-blue arrival of newborns raised all kinds of questions, and even Jin’s own mother didn’t know the answers.
Some villagers shrugged. Industrious, independent, and still single at age 46 in a village where most women get married in their twenties, Jin posed a riddle they were never going to solve. Others were too curious not to ask. But an ecstatic Jin would reply that the babies were gifts — heaven-sent angels — from her late father’s spirit, and they’d be none the wiser. Jin considered her own experience confusing and difficult, but didn’t want to dwell on it. She had children to take care of, and they delighted her.
To Jin, becoming a mother had been an exasperating journey, beset by societal norms and fertility policies that apparently don’t deem her situation worth considering. Though the Chinese government no longer fears population growth and now encourages births, having children remains the privilege of married couples. The one-child policy may be gone, but plenty of Chinese women still struggle to shape their families the way they want. As a result, Jin and other people in similar circumstances are pushed into legal gray areas — with repercussions beyond China’s borders.
“I never imagined a life without children,” Jin tells Sixth Tone. But her avenues to motherhood were closed off, one after another. During puberty, she began experiencing excruciating period pains. Jin would lie in bed for days, and sometimes pass out only to wake up with her face covered in tears and saliva. In 1999, when she was 24 years old, a doctor diagnosed her with uterine fibroids — non-cancerous growths in the wall of her uterus — and said the symptoms would naturally fade after she had her first child.
In China, and especially in a place like Zaokeng, having children means getting married first. Jin didn’t agree with that mindset: “There are single women who take good care of their children,” she says. But she acquiesced, as long as she could date on her own terms. Plenty of couples in the village were the result of older generations pairing up their children, but Jin wanted to find a husband herself. “My sisters could accept marriages through matchmaking, I just can’t,” she says.
Jin once almost tied the knot. She likes writing, and had gotten to know a man with whom she corresponded through long letters. But the romance came to an abrupt end shortly after they met in person. Heartbroken, Jin went to a local photography studio by herself and had her portrait taken dressed in a white wedding gown. In the photo, she smiles unapologetically behind a long white veil.
At one point, Jin considered in vitro fertilization, or IVF, a procedure that has been provided in China for about three decades. At a hospital in Shanghai, a check-up showed she was in good physical condition. But then they asked to see her marriage certificate. Jin hadn’t been aware China bars single women from accessing assisted reproductive technology — a policy currently being challenged in a Beijing court by an unmarried woman who was denied egg-freezing services by a hospital.
In 2011, Jin decided she couldn’t bear the worsening menstrual pains any longer and opted to have her uterus removed. Her hysterectomy meant she would be unable to bear children. As a result, her marriage prospects dimmed to men with handicaps also considered severe, a future her parents pushed her to accept but she was unwilling to entertain. “Reproduction is really important in the village; because I’m infertile, no one would marry me,” Jin says. “My parents would like anyone as their son-in-law, but I won’t do it unless I really like the person.”
Still set on becoming a mother, Jin asked the hospital where she had her hysterectomy whether they could call her when unwanted infants were left on their doorstep. “People abandon girls for some reason,” she says. “If they don’t want them, I asked the hospital to hold one for me.” Jin also visited a local welfare home and signed up online to adopt from places across China. But she never received a single reply.
Dong Xiaoying, a lawyer specializing in marriage and family law who is based in Guangzhou, in southern China’s Guangdong province, tells Sixth Tone that single women like Jin are legally allowed to adopt but are rarely given approval. (China’s official adoption process is so cumbersome and restrictive, it has given rise to an illegal trade in foster children.) “Even for married couples in China, adopting from welfare homes could be extremely difficult,” Dong says. Jin’s hysterectomy had made marriage unlikely, and being single made fostering a child practically impossible.
As Jin tried to figure out how she could adopt, she stumbled on an online ad for surrogacy, something she’d never heard of before. She was hit by a beam of hope. Her ovaries had not been removed during her hysterectomy, so her eggs could still be fertilized in vitro and placed in the uterus of another woman, who would then carry a child to term for her. Jin began researching frantically. She wrote down all the phone numbers of people who offered such services, and bought a train ticket to Guangzhou, the city most often mentioned in online surrogacy ads. To her surprise, nurses and doctors at Nanfang Hospital, one of Guangzhou’s biggest, told her that they weren’t allowed to help her.
Surrogacy was unregulated in China until 2001, when the government prohibited medical professionals and hospitals from performing the procedure out of concern for the moral and legal issues it poses. Whether or not this decision should be reversed has since become a polarizing topic. Surrogacy services continue to be legal for individuals to use. And, given the cultural expectation that all people should have children, demand remains strong from those who have difficulties conceiving — estimated to be up to 15% of all Chinese couples — as well as from same-sex couples.
While, in the ban’s wake, deep-pocketed customers looked for surrogates overseas, an underground market arose within China. Media reported on villages where young women were being pressured into becoming surrogates. As a result of these stories, as well as feminism’s increased prevalence in the country, Dong says, many people in China came to view the procedure as inherently exploitative and as an expression of patriarchy that reduces women to baby-making machines.
Advocates, meanwhile, argue adequate oversight could make surrogacy a humane way for those who have no other option to have children. They point to a special group of victims of the one-child policy: parents who lost their only child, and, despite their advanced age, would like to have another baby. And they argue that legalization would suit the country’s apparent goal of curbing its falling birth rate. But the stigma around surrogacy persists. Actor Zheng Shuang essentially lost her career after it was revealed in January that she had paid for two surrogate children to be born in the U.S.
Unaware of those larger debates, Jin found plenty of surrogacy agents waiting outside of Guangzhou’s hospitals. The prices they quoted were steep, but she was willing to part with the majority of her savings if that’s what it took. A hustler and a hard worker, Jin had started earning money when she was still in school and later held down jobs varying from kindergarten teacher to ice cream truck driver, sometimes at the same time.
Jin next traveled to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, a less developed area that borders Vietnam. She had heard stories about rural men who couldn’t afford the betrothal gifts expected by Chinese families and who opted to marry Southeast Asian women instead. Jin figured that this cost difference might apply to surrogacy services as well.
Jin eventually met an agent near the Puzhai border crossing who charged the relatively low price of 300,000 yuan (about $46,000 with today’s exchange rates) for a package where she could not choose the surrogate, the sperm donor, or the baby’s sex. Jin agreed, and decided to pay a 100,000-yuan premium to have twins. She would make a number of trips to undergo egg retrieval and other procedures, each time being chauffeured to a different location outside China where she could not read the street signs. She was treated well, but everything happened in a covert manner, Jin recalls. They always entered buildings through the back door.
After three years, in 2016, Jin got word that two of her eggs had been successfully fertilized and placed in the womb of a surrogate — a process called embryo transfer. She was thrilled. Her arduous pursuit of motherhood would conclude with her having twins. Jin’s only regret was that her father, who had died in 2015, would not be there to witness his daughter fulfilling her dream. Maybe the babies were blessings sent by him from the afterlife, she thought. Now, all she had to do was wait.
Across the border, Chinese surrogacy customers like Jin are fueling a black market. Vietnam legalized the procedure in 2015 for cases when the intended parents are close family members of the surrogate. But soliciting commercial surrogacy is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison. Since September 2020, hired surrogates face a fine of between 5 and 10 million dong ($220 to $440) — a significant sum in a country where the average monthly income is about 4.2 million dong. Nevertheless, recruitment of surrogates in Vietnam appears on the rise in recent years. Many agents look for women on Facebook, where the earliest recruitment ad Sixth Tone found was posted in 2017.
This trend coincides with a shake-up of the industry in the region. Nepal and Thailand limited access to surrogacy in 2015, and Cambodia followed the next year. As a result, clinics catering to foreign clients moved from country to country, says Jutharat Attawet, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney who specializes in surrogacy in Southeast Asia. Vietnamese surrogates usually undergo embryo transfers outside the country. Neighboring Laos and Cambodia — despite the latter country’s ban — have become surrogacy centers, Attawet tells Sixth Tone. Jin, who didn’t know where her agent took her, likely underwent treatment outside of Vietnam as well.
The potential punishment for Vietnamese surrogates pales in comparison with the money they can make. Agents representing Chinese customers advertise with offers of up to 400 million dong in over a dozen Facebook communities, such as one group titled “Surrogacy — Donating Eggs — Sperm,” which has 9,500 members. “If you want to be a surrogate in Hanoi or China, DM me,” said one group member, referring to the Vietnamese capital, in June. Besides other agents sharing similar offers, women look for advice on selling their eggs or becoming surrogates, and men inquire about selling their sperm. Border closures due to COVID-19 have not stopped agents from advertising surrogacy opportunities in China throughout 2020 and 2021.
Posts on Facebook commonly target Vietnamese women facing dire financial situations. Agents require that the women are younger than 35 years old, have never undergone a C-section, and do not carry infectious diseases such as hepatitis B. One representative recruitment ad reads: “Embryo transfer in China, prenatal care and delivery in China; compensation ~350 million (dong), for twins additional 70 million, C-section 35 million. Stay in an apartment, 5-6 people per apartment, all Vietnamese, comfortable stay and sufficient meals, regular payment each month, reputable and safe. No scam and no salary cuts.” The payment figures match reports in Vietnamese media about criminal surrogacy rings.
Trang (a pseudonym) was one such recruit. Heavy debts pushed the 28-year-old from Vietnam’s southern industrial hub Binh Duong province to join a surrogacy group on Facebook, where she met her agent. Trang was brought to Cambodia for an embryo transfer and then returned to Vietnam to wait until she was close to delivery, at which point she would be smuggled into China. During her first crossing attempt, smugglers abandoned Trang and two other surrogates in the mountainous Ha Giang province, which neighbors China. The trio’s advanced pregnancies made it impossible for them to complete the journey on their own. After local police brought her back home, Trang was contacted by her agent via social media and directed to another border province, Cao Bang. Her second attempt to reach China succeeded. In July 2020, she gave birth to a boy and gave him to Chinese agents who paid her 320 million dong.
All the while, Vietnamese authorities had been tracking the women so they could catch the people who had recruited them. In March, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, a charity that rescues and cares for survivors of trafficking, supported Trang and the two other surrogates when they were called to testify against their agents. Blue Dragon, which shared Trang’s story with Sixth Tone but did not share her identity, first dealt with a China-linked case of surrogacy in 2018. Since then, the NGO has aided 13 surrogates in total — nine of them in 2020 alone. “You can see from last year’s numbers that there has been an increase,” says Blue Dragon founder Michael Brosowski. “Increased border security is likely detecting more cases as they happen,” he adds.
Trang’s journey, first going to Cambodia for an embryo transfer and then crossing into China to give birth, is one of two paths agents recommend. It’s a risky undertaking. Far along in their pregnancies, surrogates have to dodge guards to cross the border at a time when COVID-19-related restrictions on movement are in place in both countries. Getting caught might mean they are prosecuted for trafficking a person under the age of 16. An alternative is having the entire process, from embryo transfer to delivery, take place in China.
“DM me to go to China, high compensation, comfortable stay, you won’t live with a supervisor or the boss, I myself am currently a surrogate in China,” one Facebook user in the “Surrogacy — Donating Eggs — Sperm” group, who we’ll call Linh, commented. When contacted by Sixth Tone posing as a potential surrogate, Linh explains she is currently in Guangdong, having illegally crossed the Vietnam-China border on foot with a guide. “Normally the journey takes a few hours, but now it takes days,” she says. “You have to check your surroundings as you go.”
Linh describes life in Guangdong while pregnant and undocumented as comfortable and free, and says the likelihood of an embryo transfer succeeding is “very high.” She says to watch out for agents who offer below-market rates and keep the difference for themselves. Her agency offers 100,000 yuan, she says, herself quoting a lower price than she had previously posted in a different Facebook group. Following these exchanges, Linh did not respond to Sixth Tone’s attempts to speak with her on the record.
Occasionally, surrogacy group members urge others to avoid certain Facebook users. Women have few assurances that agents can be trusted, and they are at risk of exploitation during every step of the process. “I don’t think we can say that every case of cross-border commercial surrogacy involves trafficking, but sometimes the line between smuggling and trafficking is easily blurred,” says Brosowski. “We know that people who pay smugglers to get them somewhere are highly vulnerable to then being trafficked — so even when women give their consent to surrogacy at the outset, she may still need protection and support to ensure she is not being coerced at any stage.”
Sixth Tone saw multiple users caution others not to believe offers for “surrogacy through direct intercourse.” Victims of such scams share stories of being lured to motel rooms and raped. In 2019, Blue Dragon warned on its website about the emergence of so-called baby farms in China. Police had freed nine Vietnamese women who had been promised jobs but had instead been raped and forcibly impregnated, with the likely intent being to sell their babies. “Any couple wanting to pay a Vietnamese woman to carry a child for them need to know that they are entering dark and dangerous territory,” Brosowski says. “The child they wish to bring into the world may be starting their life as a victim of a crime.”
In March 2017, Jin received a call from her agent. Her two children had been born — girls, as Jin had hoped — and would be brought to Lishui, a city in Zhejiang near Jin’s village, where she could come pick them up. Jin thought she might meet the surrogate mother, and fretted about what to say to her. She considered offering her some money and asking her to help breastfeed the babies for a while. But the surrogate was nowhere to be seen; her children were accompanied by two people she had never met.
Jin could finally hold her daughters. “I was scared, I feared I might break them,” she recalls thinking. Her relief was consuming. “I’d been waiting for them for so long,” she says. She nicknamed the twins Dada and Xiaoxiao, meaning “older” and “younger.” The most difficult part of becoming a mother was over, but the same notions about who ought to be a parent that made it hard for Jin to have children in the first place would continue to throw hurdles her way.
The first step was figuring out how to register her daughters with the government so they could attend public school and receive health care benefits. Jin decided her best option was to claim that she had adopted them. But at the county government office, she found out that to register her children, she would need either their birth certificates or adoption registration certificates; she had neither.
Jin was also told that the government would be levying “social maintenance fees” on her for having two children out of wedlock. These fines, recently abolished in line with current fertility policies, have historically been handed out to people who have children without government permission — usually to couples who would exceed birth limits, but also to unmarried women who were ineligible to get such permission in the first place. In 2016, the central government called a halt to this practice, but, as of 2019, 20 provinces still fined single mothers.
To be eligible for adoption registration certificates, a government official told Jin, she needed to be financially stable and have her own home. Jin still lived in the house she’d grown up in, a collection of ramshackle wooden buildings set around a courtyard. Her parents had transferred ownership of the house to one of her brothers when he married, and, together with Jin, moved into a side building. As in many Chinese villages, the land in Zaokeng is divided according to the number of men in each household. Jin’s brothers all had their own plots. As the village’s women are expected to marry, Jin did not. “It is the custom in our village that daughters don’t inherit houses,” Jin Tingming, a Zaokeng villager who is not related to Jin Lifen, tells Sixth Tone.
Jin’s eye fell on a vacant plot of land between two houses whose inhabitants had long ago left Zaokeng. Both families agreed to grant Jin use of the land. She would no longer be the quiet woman living with her aging mother in a worn-down house. She could build her own house, one that didn’t have a leaky roof and mouldy walls, and would provide a safe environment for her daughters to grow up in. When, not long after, government officials and police officers showed up at her mother’s house, Jin figured they were there to talk about the land use agreement. Instead, they quizzed her about her daughters’ background and hassled her about paying social maintenance fees. In the end, another family living near the plot of land objected to Jin building a house there, and the deal fell through.
No longer having to budget for building a new house, Jin thought about how she could best put her remaining savings to use. A former colleague had told her about Formax, one of the many peer-to-peer lending platforms active in China at the time that promised easy loans to users in need of money, and high interest rates to lenders. After Jin received a handsome return on the first few hundred yuan, she decided to pour all of her savings into Formax, figuring that the monthly interest would be a stable source of income for her family.
But the majority of China’s peer-to-peer platforms proved to be built on shaky or even criminal foundations. In less than three months, Formax collapsed and Jin couldn’t withdraw a dime. Devastated, she traveled to Hong Kong and Shenzhen to chase her money. She joined other investors in a days-long sit-in protest in front of the company gate, until local authorities told them to wait for the results of an official investigation and sent them home. Not knowing who to turn to, Jin went up the hill behind the village and visited her father’s grave. She thought she had been close to the peaceful and ordinary life he’d always wished for her, but suddenly it seemed farther away than ever.
Jin described this as the darkest time in her life. “I didn’t know how I had the strength to even stand up,” she recalls. In the end, it was the thought that her daughters needed her that pulled her through. Jin decided to try and apply for subsistence allowance, the most basic form of welfare in China, so she could at least afford formula. She brought her daughters along to plead with the village head. With her mother in poor health, Jin had to take care of her infants on her own and couldn’t work. She had already gone into debt, she told him. But he denied her request, saying it wasn’t the state’s task to fund her personal life decisions. “Generally we grant the allowances to people who are over 60 years old or to people who don’t have the ability to work and have an income below the provincial standard,” says Fang Fuyun, the village’s party secretary.
At that point, Jin felt like she had hit every possible dead end. She wanted to register her children, give them a good house, and make sure there was enough money to provide for them. But she had failed on all three counts. She broke down in front of the village head’s house, while seemingly half the village stood by and watched. “I never thought I’d be this poverty-stricken,” Jin sighs with a forced smile. “I’ve come to understand what it means to be a member of the lowest class. People don’t really want to help you.”
But Jin found a way out. She continued to talk with government officials about her situation, and told her story to a couple of media outlets. In January, she finally began receiving subsistence allowance. Despite the fact that at 1,100 yuan a month, the assistance is just a drop in an ocean of financial pressure, Jin has stayed positive. “Now I have forgotten most of my hatred toward the world,” Jin says. “I just want to carry on with my life.”
But there was more hardship to overcome. One day, after Xiaoxiao came back from school, Jin noticed that her eyes were uneven. At a hospital in the provincial capital, Hangzhou, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a rare and long-term condition characterized by muscle weakness. It marked the start of regular trips to big city hospitals, where, because the girl remained unregistered, every visit began with filling out form after form.
A government official suggested she give her daughters up for adoption so she wouldn’t have to pay their medical bills. “How could I do that?” Jin remembers saying. “I will be there with her no matter how hard this is.” The woman behind the counter didn’t quite know how to reply, and said “You’re a person of good conscience.” A few days later, the girls’ registration was finally completed. In Jin’s household registration booklet, under “relationship,” it says “de facto adoption,” a category created to bring informal foster care arrangements into the government’s view. When, in two years, Dada and Xiaoxiao turn six, they will be able to go to school with their kindergarten classmates.
Jin is content — but exhausted. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since they came into my life,” she says. They still live in the same wooden home built almost 100 years ago, where the girls, talkative and inseparable, run around in patched clothes and fight over who gets to sit on the swing. As their screams echo through the village, Jin patiently separates them, only to see them wrestling each other again a few seconds later. “I’m thankful for the surrogate mother, what she did was a miracle of life,” Jin says, as her daughters run past. “Look how precious they are.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Jin Lifen gives her daughter a kiss at her home in Zaokeng, Zhejiang province, Jan. 22, 2021. He Kai/The Paper)