China’s LGBTQ Community Is the Hidden Victim of a Celebrity Surrogacy Scandal

LGBTQ acceptance has been rising in China, but a celebrity scandal has threatened to undo years of progress.
March 19, 2021, 9:51am
Chinese celebrity zheng shuang
Chinese actress Zheng Shuang. Photo: AFP / AARON TAM

Hanson Qin watched nervously as lurid gossip centered on a celebrity’s use of surrogacy lit up the Chinese internet and dominated newspaper front pages.

“In the gay community, [surrogacy is] huge… it’s something to work towards. Something to respect, to want, and to desire,” Qin, a 31-year-old gay father in Beijing, told VICE World News.

Qin and his partner, Wu, 44, had a child via surrogate about three years ago. For Wu, having a child of his own is his lifelong dream, as well as his parents’. Surrogacy helped to fulfill this dream, as well as those of countless other LGBTQ couples in China.

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But in January, the couple found surrogacy the topic of impassioned discussions on Chinese social media, after a series of dramatic allegations were made against 29-year-old actress Zheng Shuang. 

The high-profile actress and her former partner, Zhang Heng, had engaged two surrogate mothers to birth their babies, but split up before the children were born. On Jan. 18, Zhang revealed that he had been in the United States for over a year caring for “two young and innocent little lives.” Then, photos of the children’s birth certificates surfaced on Chinese social media, followed by a voice recording where the actress and her parents appeared to discuss abandoning the then-unborn children. 

In a matter of days, Zheng was dropped by partnership brands including Prada and mercilessly berated by Chinese netizens for being “heartless.” 

While details of Zheng’s case remain up for debate, the frenzy turned surrogacy into a buzzword on Chinese social media. In a social media post that references Zheng, state broadcaster CCTV vehemently condemned surrogacy as “illegal” and “unethical.”

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Previously a little-known reproductive arrangement, surrogacy has since been fervently scrutinized by Chinese netizens in terms of both morality and legality, inadvertently putting same-sex couples on the defensive.

China officially banned surrogacy in 2001, but it has continued to operate in a grey area. Willing couples can seek surrogate mothers through underground agencies or have their babies overseas where the practice is legal.

At the forefront of contemporary discussions on the ethics of surrogacy is the issue of women’s rights. “Surrogacy objectifies women and trivializes human lives. It’s an inhuman act of buying and selling. We can neither compromise nor ignore this,” a user of the Chinese social media site Weibo wrote after allegations against Zheng surfaced.

“I think people’s emphasis on women’s rights is also a good thing, to an extent, since women are also a traditionally marginalized group,” said 31-year-old Daniel Hsu, a gay man living in Beijing.

Hsu called the concern with women’s rights in the online surrogacy debate a form of “social progress.”

“But,” he said, “they may neglect an even smaller minority,” referring to the LGBTQ community in China. 

Indeed, what has been completely left out of this public dialogue is the fact that surrogacy is especially popular among China’s LGBTQ community, being one of the very limited options that LGBTQ people have to start families of their own.

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China’s LGBTQ community, despite steadily growing in public visibility and acceptance since the late 1990s, still finds itself treading the fringes of mainstream society today. Lucetta Kam, an associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University and a scholar of queer studies in Chinese societies, said the community by and large “remains invisible to the general public.”

“It is hard to say whether the practice is common or not among LGBTQ couples in China,” Kam said of surrogacy. “But it’s safe to say that the demand of children… is high among LGBTQ couples or individuals in China, not so different from their heterosexual counterparts.”

The acute desire for biological children has its roots in traditional Chinese culture. “I think having a child to carry on the family bloodline is a kind of complex that Chinese people have,” Hsu said. “A lot of Chinese people place a huge emphasis on having a child. They see it as something to be fulfilled in life.”

Ironically, some of the stigma surrounding surrogacy may also be traced back to conventional Chinese notions of bearing one’s own children. Hsu said, “In traditional Chinese ethics, it’s hard to accept that the child’s mother is not the one who birthed them. So, to an extent, surrogacy violates the traditional understanding of a mother.” 

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The public denouncements, including by state media, may cloud the public’s perception of surrogacy. “I think a lot of people don’t understand surrogacy,” said Eric Yang, a 37-year-old gay man living in Beijing. “It’s just that on the internet some public figures, leaders, and official statements label this act ‘unethical.’ Then netizens will believe that it’s unethical, without going deeper into the logic of this issue.”

Alexi Hu, a sociological researcher at the University of Victoria, told VICE World News that the discussions surrounding surrogacy and LGBTQ culture in China are closely interconnected. “Surrogacy and LGBTQ are two different topics, but they are also outcomes of similar social and political circumstances,” he said. “From the perspective of public morals, both surrogacy and LGBTQ are unconventional and the opposites of what Chinese culture encourages.”

Hu also pointed out an economic dimension to the debate. Surrogacy and LGBTQ culture are both commonly associated with affluence in China, he said. This could have fueled the attacks against the actress after people learned that she went abroad to have children via surrogacy.

“Those who have financial security and intellectual ability are more likely to be able to explore, understand and express their sexuality. On the other hand, we have affluent people flying to foreign countries and spending hundreds of thousands of US dollars on surrogacy. For the general public, these social phenomena represent the unfairness of wealth distribution. It is a game for the rich,” Hu said.

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But amid the online crusade against Zheng, some remain empathetic toward her situation.

“I personally think, just being a celebrity in China is very very very very difficult,” Qin said. “I feel like I would want to know her side of the story [and] her explanation first before judging her as a good or bad person.”

Regardless of the verdict on Zheng, some think that the damage against the LGBTQ community has already been done. 

“This has a really bad impact on LGBTQ people and also surrogacy… we’ve done so much to push LGBTQ culture forward in China,” said Anthony Shen, 24, another gay man living in Beijing.

Shen believes that, amid budding public acceptance of the LGBTQ individuals and their lifestyles in China, Zheng’s use of surrogacy has threatened to undo the strides that the LGBTQ community has made in the country. “People would say ‘I knew I shouldn’t have accepted the LGBTQ people because that’s what they do,’” he said.

Despite the setback, Shen said he would continue exploring surrogacy as an option for forming a family.

“I’ve thought about surrogacy many times,” he said. He said he would “definitely” have a child via surrogacy, provided that he met a man he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.