May 23, 2018 07:36 PM

Paying the Price for Parenthood

An Hui and Ye Jianbin’s family of five are used to attracting stares from strangers on the streets of Shenzhen, the southern Chinese metropolis they call home.

Most people in the country have never met a family in which both parents are men — let alone one in which the children are triplets with light hair and European features.

Yet, in one way, An and Ye’s family is an example of an increasingly common phenomenon — surrogacy, which many wealthy Chinese who are unable to conceive now pay for, despite the practice being illegal on the Chinese mainland.

The couple’s sons — Zhizhong, Zhiya, and Zhifei — were born in Hong Kong three years ago, after a donor’s eggs were fertilized with An’s sperm, and the resulting embryos were implanted into a surrogate mother’s womb. The egg donor is a well-known German model, the couple told Caixin.

Although An is, biologically speaking, the children’s only father, he jokes that they like Ye better. “The babies call me ‘Older Brother,’ and call him ‘Abi,’ which is their mispronunciation of ‘Daddy,’” An told Caixin. “At home, I play the role of the strict father, so the kids prefer to stick to Little Ye.”

The couple decided to have children after Ye began suffering from depression in 2010, when his father lost a large sum of money in a gambling scam. Having children would help lift Ye’s spirits and reaffirm the strength of their relationship, the couple believed.

The fact that the two men hold shares in a thriving surrogacy agency probably also helped them reach their decision.

An began investing in the agency in 2008, the year he met Ye in an online LGBT chat room, because he was optimistic about the surrogacy industry’s prospects. Because commercial surrogacy isn’t allowed in China, some companies resort to performing medical procedures surreptitiously in private clinics. Others, like An and Ye’s company, conduct almost all their activities outside the Chinese mainland.

The surrogacy process starts with the egg donor, and An and Ye’s agency has strict criteria for egg donors: they must be pretty, 1.6 meters (5 feet 3 inches) or taller in height, have a higher education and a cheerful disposition, be pale-skinned with thick hair, and have no hereditary diseases, among other traits perceived as desirable. The price they are paid for their eggs is determined by their appearance and education level — a pretty undergraduate can make $25,000, while someone with a master’s degree can make up to $40,000.

The organization’s criteria reflect beauty standards in China, where skin-whitening creams are openly marketed and cosmetic leg-lengthening operations rose in popularity until the government banned them in 2006.

Other agencies also promise their clients that they can find egg donors with similar desirable traits, but because China’s surrogacy industry operates in an unregulated legal gray area, some unscrupulous agencies promise clients a “beautiful, highly educated candidate,” but “perform the operation in an underground clinic with average-looking, uneducated replacements,” Ye told Caixin.

Once an egg donor is chosen, all medical procedures, from extracting eggs to implanting fertilized embryos, are performed in Russia, where surrogacy is legal. The surrogate mothers employed by An and Ye’s agency are based in Thailand, where the cost of labor is lower. Clients must pay between 300,000 yuan ($46,970) and 1 million yuan over the course of the surrogacy, meaning the intended parents are usually affluent.

The costs of surrogacy extend beyond birth — because An and Ye’s children can’t legally qualify for “hukou,” the crucial household registration document that provides access to public services, they attend a private kindergarten (preschool) where the tuition costs their parents 24,000 yuan a month.

An told Caixin that over 95% of his clients are heterosexual married couples struggling with infertility, while around 4% are same-sex couples. The agency has around 30 to 40 clients a month, and has been involved in over 30,000 births since it was set up in 2008, An said.


An Hui and his children get ready to leave for school on Oct. 19. The triplets were born in Hong Kong to a surrogate mother in 2014. Photo: Yang Yifan/Caixin


An Hui and Ye Jianbin interview a potential egg donor, a 25-year-old Thai woman who goes by the name Bowbeau, for their surrogacy business on Oct. 26. Candidates are judged based on their appearance, education, health, and personality. Photo: Yang Yifan/Caixin


An Hui accompanies a Thai surrogate mother to a Shenzhen clinic on Oct. 26, after the woman complained that she wasn’t feeling well. Photo: Yang Yifan/Caixin


A Thai woman who was employed by An Hui and Ye Jianbin’s company holds the infant she recently gave birth to on her way from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, where the child’s intended parent is waiting, on Oct. 18. Photo: Yang Yifan/Caixin


An Hui holds a client’s baby who was born through surrogacy. Photo: Yang Yifan/Caixin

Contact reporter Teng Jing Xuan (
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