Celebrity scandal is the tinder that feeds the flames of Chinese social media. Thanks to COVID-19, the heat has been turned down for much of the past year. But last week, one of the more sordid uproars in recent memory stoked the embers.
The episode involved Zheng Shuang, one of China’s most popular actresses. Recently, her ex-boyfriend said on social media that she had abandoned him with two surrogate children in the U.S.
Chinese media soon dug up birth certificates for the kids that named Zheng as a parent. Then someone leaked conversations — recorded after the couple had split, but before the kids were born — in which Zheng and her parents allegedly discussed what to do with the now-unwanted children. Options they considered included abandonment, adoption and abortion.
Zheng says that she didn’t break Chinese law by paying mothers overseas to have her children. But that’s done little to protect her from the fury unleashed by the incident. Hashtags associated with the scandal were used more than a billion times in the space of a few days.
Zheng lost numerous product endorsements — including with Prada, which a week earlier had anointed her a brand ambassador — and faced pointed criticism from state media and government officials.
The reaction was so fierce that it transcended the usual celebrity outrage cycle — and reignited decades-long national debates about shrinking families, rising inequality and the extra-legal privileges that China’s wealthy all too often enjoy.
Although the past half-century of economic reform has brought unprecedented affluence to China, it has also proved socially disruptive in many respects.
No entity has felt the change more acutely than the traditional Chinese family. Between the 1950s and the mid-aughts, the size of the average household declined from more than five members to just over three. Delayed marriage and child-bearing, the growing economic independence of women, and the country’s population-control policies all played a part.
Yet even as these changes have accelerated, China has retained a strong streak of social conservatism and a reverence for traditional family roles. The resulting tensions can be stark. For example, the term “leftover women” has become a popular way of referring to unmarried women in their late 20s and 30s.
Single motherhood is still socially (and in some places legally) stigmatized. Likewise, it’s not uncommon for men to avoid relationships with educated and successful women out of fear that they may want to delay childbirth.
These tensions often intersect with class divides. Although assisted-reproduction facilities are widely available in China, they’re of limited value in a country in which infertility rates are rising and parents are having children later and later in life. Surrogacy might provide another option, but it’s hardly accessible: One 2017 report in state media found that the fees associated with hiring a woman to carry a surrogate pregnancy start at about $100,000, and can run more than double that.
It’s not just the fees that make surrogacy inaccessible. China officially bars medical providers from offering the service. Local governments, though, are often willing to tolerate what amounts to a gray-market business, comprising hundreds of agencies, helping wealthy families have children. Meanwhile, for truly well-heeled prospective parents who can afford to further reduce the legal risks, surrogacy abroad — especially in the U.S. — beckons.
For many Chinese, these expensive quasi-legal reproductive options are a reminder that the law doesn’t apply equally. Worse, most surrogates (in China at least) are women who don’t enjoy the rosy economic prospects of those who hire them and generally lack legal rights if anything goes wrong.
In a country where the richest 20% have average disposable incomes roughly 10 times greater than the poorest 20%, those facts are a combustible mix — and help explain why Zheng’s scandal exploded last week.
These tensions aren’t going away. Inequality will continue to drive frustration at the manner in which China is administered; traditionalist views of the Chinese family will continue to weigh against economic and reproductive freedom. And the collateral damage will be Chinese women who want to start families on their own terms, or prospective parents who want access to low-cost surrogacy without having to hide.
China’s government is unlikely to defuse or solve these issues any time soon. But if left unaddressed, they’re likely to be the source of more scandals — and far worse tensions — in the years to come.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”
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