Despite being banned on the mainland, the business of surrogacy is thriving, as shown by the fast growth of a Shanghai-based agency reported on by domestic media.
AA69, one of the mainland's first surrogacy businesses, had seen some 10,000 babies born via its services since its launch in 2004, China Newsweek reported on Thursday.
Customers had to pay about a million yuan (HK$1.13 million) for a baby delivered through a surrogate mother, said its founder, Lu Jinfeng, who styles himself as the "godfather" of the country's surrogacy sector.
"The supervision [of the industry] is in a vacuum and there is tacit approval from the authorities," he was quoted as saying.
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"Based on the high infertility rate in China today, it's not likely for the authorities to step up a crackdown against [surrogacy],"
Lu regards the surrogacy business as a "traditional one" that has been industrialised. "It's not so hidden as the public thinks," he was quoted as saying.
At his company, sales staff look for infertile and wealthy couples. Another team hires women, mainly from rural areas, to be surrogate mothers. Doctors are also hired at a million yuan per year to moonlight for AA69 outside of the hospitals where they work full time.
Lu's company has branches in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Beijing and a city in Shandong province. All of them were registered as biological science and technology firms, the magazine reported.
Mainland medical institutions and staff are prohibited from carrying out "any form of surrogacy", and trading in sperm, ova, fertilised eggs or embryos is also forbidden. But Lu said the universal two-child policy put into effect last year had given a boost to the industry. People are charged a minimum of 650,000 yuan if they can provide viable ova and sperm. Otherwise the price can go as high as 1.3 million yuan. Customers are allowed to pay by instalments.
Surrogate mothers, who were required to be 24-32 years old, married and have already given birth to babies, were in short supply, the report said.
A survey by the China Population Association in 2012 showed that more than 40 million couples, or one in every eight, had difficulties conceiving.
People's Daily recently published a lengthy analysis on the possibility of legalising non-commercial surrogate motherhood to support the two-child policy.
Days later, however, the National Health and Family Planning Commission said authorities would keep cracking down on surrogacy.
Mi Hong, a professor from the school of public affairs at Zhejiang University, said the government should be cautious in relaxing the restrictions on surrogacy, as doing so would involve a series of problems in law, ethics and social management. "It's easy for people to take advantage of legal loopholes," he said.