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China's COVID rules complicate things for parents whose surrogates live in the U.S.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The political relationship between the U.S. and China remains tense. And Beijing continues to make it very difficult for its citizens to travel abroad, which is complicating an industry here in the U.S. - surrogacy. NPR's China correspondent Emily Feng travels to California to meet Chinese families seeking the American dream.

AUNTIE WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Inside this three-story pastel mansion in Orange County suburbia, Auntie Wang (ph) cradles her precious charge - Echo (ph), a 16-day-old baby.

AUNTIE WANG: (Through interpreter) The more time you spend with her, the more she is attached to you. You hold her, play, engage with her. And look, she responds to you, even after only 16 days.

FENG: For all Auntie Wang's clucking and clear affection, the baby is not hers. She's the hired nanny. Echo was born to a surrogate mother in the U.S. Her parents are back in China, and they have yet to meet her, much less take her home.

AUNTIE WANG: (Through interpreter) We really treat her like one of our own children because her parents cannot be with her here in the U.S.

FENG: I ask Auntie Wang how many babies she's nannied over the years.

AUNTIE WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Countless," she laughs - but usually for six weeks, not months. Sharing the house with her is 7-month-old Lucy (ph), who is also a stranded surrogate baby and has yet to meet her parents as well. That's because China's COVID controls have made it nearly impossible for her parents to travel outside of the country. Here's Sunny (ph), an employee who manages the house they live in.

SUNNY: (Through interpreter) The flights from China for Lucy's mother got canceled at least twice, so she keeps changing her flight.

FENG: The two babies are part of a quiet cottage industry in the U.S. for surrogacy, where a woman is hired to carry someone else's baby to term. But the whole industry has been upended by COVID. Most parents don't even fly to the U.S. anymore. Instead, they mail their reproductive material over. And about a year later, their new baby is flown to China. It's a process that costs well over $100,000. But despite the tensions between China and the U.S., for some Chinese, the American dream is very much alive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken). America is a good country - everything.

FENG: This employee of one agency in California didn't want to give his name because providing surrogacy is completely illegal in China.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) As long as you know what you want and you have money, having children in the U.S. will always bring advantages because America is a country for immigrants. It's always the first generation that works the hardest.

FENG: It is legal for Chinese citizens to travel to the U.S. on a tourist visa, where there are no restrictions on consensual surrogacy. They're then brought into their own little bubble. All the clients, the companies and even the nannies are overwhelmingly from China. Here's Allen Hu (ph), the co-founder of Pang Baba, a birth and surrogacy agency.

ALLEN HU: (Through interpreter) What is this industry other than simply a lodging and catering service? We arrange housing and food for families. For transportation, we used to arrange coach buses through a tourism agency. All of this is above board, no?

FENG: The Chinese clients want to have children in the U.S. for a variety of reasons. China used to limit couples to one child. Even now, unmarried women and non-heterosexual couples have a hard time having children or adopting legally. And having a baby - even via surrogate - in the U.S. also grants the child citizenship. And perhaps surprisingly, Hu says the growing competition between the U.S. and China has actually made American citizenship more attractive to many Chinese families.

HU: (Through interpreter) In the foreseeable future, China and the U.S. will be the two strongest countries in the world. If the U.S. is not first, then China will be. It will definitely be a win-win situation for your children in the future if they have both these nationalities.

FENG: California's Department of Public Health, which issues birth certificates, says it does not keep track of how many babies are born through surrogacy or to Chinese parents in the state. But, anecdotally, agencies NPR spoke to suggested it was hundreds a year, if not more. Nearly all of these new U.S. citizens are then flown back to China under the care of yet another caretaker. Here's Auntie Wang, the nanny.

AUNTIE WANG: (Through interpreter) Oh, we cry when we say goodbye to these children. One cannot bear to part with them. They're like our own.

FENG: She says she still video chats with one of the last babies she took care of.

AUNTIE WANG: (Through interpreter) One of the last babies I cared for, called Nunu (ph), still remembers me long after she's gone to her parents.

FENG: Wang says that, on video chat, at the sound of her voice, the baby started searching frantically around the room for her old nanny. But she's not there. They're an ocean apart.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Fountain Valley, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.