And efforts to discourage it aren't working.
HONG KONG — On April 21, state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) ran a lengthy segment on the phenomenon of birth tourism. The numbers are staggering: According to a study cited by the report, in 2008, approximately 4,200 Chinese women gave birth in the United States as tourists, but that figure had surged to over 10,000 by 2012.
The number is likely even higher in 2013 and 2014 after Hong Kong, a former popular destination for birth tourism, significantly restricted the practice, and a romantic comedy called Finding Mr. Right, about a young Chinese mother giving birth in Seattle, became one of the biggest hits in Chinese theaters in 2013. In the recent segment, CCTV performed an unscientific survey on the streets of Beijing, which revealed that 80 percent of respondents know or had heard of people who have gone abroad to give birth recently, while 30 percent said they have considered or will consider giving birth in a foreign land.
CCTV tried to cast birth tourism in a negative light: a fad that comes with "hidden risks and endless troubles." The network interviewed a family, surnamed Guo, who had lived in the United States for 10 years before recently returning to China for work. The family's two U.S.-born children lack Chinese hukou, or residential registration, and had trouble gaining acceptance to local public schools in Beijing as a result. (The Guos are now paying over $40,000 a year to send the children to international schools.) Potential cultural clashes between the children and the parents also feature in the segment. Another woman surnamed Xing described how her American-born teenage children, Mike and Michelle, who returned to China with their parents after attending U.S. elementary school, have become "bananas," a disparaging term for Asian-Americans considered "yellow on the outside and white on the inside."
The network's segment, however, through interviews with birth tourism agencies and parents, also gave voice to the reasons underlying the choice to travel across the globe to give birth, like "superior education resources," "clean environment," "visa-free entry to 183 countries," and the "ability to apply for green cards for the whole family after they are 21." (The agencies seem to have exaggerated the number of countries that grant visa-free entry to U.S. citizens).
Avoiding China's hyper-competitive school system also rates among top concerns. The education culture in China is to "cram, cram, and cram some more," said mother Guo, "but we don't have any concerns like that because it is more important to us to give our children a choice and do what they love." There is nascent evidence of a backlash at home, with some local governments in China experimenting with so-called appreciation education. But a harsher, learn-and-churn model remains prevalent.
As an added inducement, the CCTV report implied that many Chinese parents manage to eat their cake and have it too. Many can obtain a hukou for their U.S.-born babies, assuming they don't run afoul of China's one-child policy. This constitutes a bit of a legal gray area because China does not recognize dual citizenship, but in practice, a hukou entitles the child to partake in local education and healthcare without losing that U.S. passport. The parents who wish to have a second child stateside to circumvent the one-child policy also have to pay a fine at home, according to the expert interviewed in the report. But it is unclear how often the fine is enforced against U.S.-born children.
Speaking louder than CCTV's cautionary words about birth tourism may be the covert actions of the network's own employees. Investigative journalist Chai Jing and anchor Dong Qing, both well-known to millions of Chinese, are rumored to have given birth in the United States in recent months. (Neither woman has confirmed or denied these reports.) Chai has cultivated the public persona of an intelligent and sensitive reporter who cares deeply about China's social problems and underclass. Dong, on the other hand, is best recognized as the glamorous, perfectly-coiffed host of CCTV's Chinese New Year Gala, an annual variety show watched by an estimated 700 million people. By all indications, Chai and Dong work inside the system and have intimate knowledge of how the Chinese government and its state-owned enterprises operate. Their choice to give birth elsewhere is indicative of what they think about China's future, and more persuasive to the general public than what they say on air.
It's hardly surprising that a cottage industry has sprung up around this phenomenon. A search for "giving birth in the U.S." on Weibo, China's popular microblogging platform, yielded more than 3 million results and dozens of users holding themselves out as agents who can assist with the process of giving birth stateside (for a fee, of course). Most posts from these agents give a range of advice from visa interview preparation to prenatal care, along with photos of plush maternity hotels in large houses. They do not mention that these maternity hotels, mostly located in U.S. cities with large Chinese communities like Los Angeles and Seattle, are unlicensed and violate local zoning codes. The agents quote packages ranging from $16,000 to $50,000. "$16,000 can't get you a large house or a nice car," claimed an agent named American Baby Home, "but it can get you a baby with U.S. citizenship."
While birth tourism is certainly controversial in the United States, it is not illegal, and women from all over the world have taken advantage of the practice. One commentator has argued that it would be beneficial to the U.S. economy over the long term, as it tends to attract wealthy immigrants along with their investment and talent. This type of positive thinking may have to prevail until the interpretation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution -- which grants birthright citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil -- changes. That is unlikely to happen any time soon.