Chinese short film blasted for ‘glorifying’ commercial surrogacy

Society & Culture

One of the grand old men of Chinese cinema — Chen Kaige — has found himself at the center of a social media controversy after directing a short film about a woman who carries baby for another couple for a fee.

Chen Kaige Baby
A screenshot from the film

A Chinese short film — directed by critically-acclaimed filmmaker Chén Kǎigē 陈凯歌 — has become a target of vitriol on the Chinese internet and in government-run media because of its positive portrayal of commercial surrogate pregnancy. The procedure, by which a woman carries another woman’s baby, is technically illegal in China, but rarely punished when practiced on the black market.

Titled “Ten Months with You,” the 30-minute film (in Chinese) was made for the acting reality show “Everybody Stand By 2” (演员请就位), a series where celebrity contestants give their takes on classic scenes from TV dramas and movies. For the finale of the show’s second season, Chen and a group of artists created the controversial film, which tells the story of “the complex and painful relationships among three people who are connected by a newborn,” according to the clip’s official description.

The fictional story is centered around a young woman who agrees, for a fee, to be a surrogate mother for a infertile couple. But during her pregnancy, the woman gets increasingly attached to the life inside her and contemplates keeping the baby after the birth. In the end, after enduring emotional struggles and legal threats from the couple’s surrogacy agent, the woman eventually gives in to her boyfriend’s persuasion and parts with her newborn.

While the film does not take an explicit ethical stand on commercial gestational surrogacy — the practice of paying a woman to carry a child that is not biologically related to her, the legal consequences of the procedure are frequently mentioned in the film itself and its marketing materials on social media. In the film’s closing credits, viewers are reminded that “surrogacy is strictly forbidden by Chinese law and those who violate it will be severely punished.” On the show’s official Weibo page, the film is branded (in Chinese) as an “elegy” about the reason why one “should not challenge the moral bottom line, even in a scenario of financial distress.”

Despite these efforts to avoid controversy, the film still found itself in hot water. On Weibo, as of today, a related hashtag (in Chinese) has generated more than 500 million views and almost 70,000 comments, most of which are critical of the film for supposedly portraying surrogate motherhood in a relatively positive light. Many detractors took a specific issue with the film’s ending, which they argued was “unrealistically positive” because almost everyone in the story had their needs met without facing legal repercussions.

“Paid surrogacy is an exploitation of women, especially poor, uneducated women. But obviously Chen doesn’t see it this way because he is from the elite class and is completely out of touch with reality,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). Another person commented, “As someone who holds U.S. citizenship, Chen sure knows how to form opinions on issues using American thinking.”

A slew of state-owned publications were quick to condemn the film, too. In a harshly-worded Weibo post, the People’s Court Daily, a daily newspaper owned by the Supreme People’s Court in China, called (in Chinese) on the public not to “defy the law.” The post reads, “This is a solemn reminder from us: China has explicitly banned surrogacy. According to Chinese regulations on assisted reproductive technology, clinics and medical workers shall not conduct any forms of surrogacy techniques.”

The backlash to the film reflected the contentious debates surrounding commercial surrogacy in China in recent years, particularly the ethics of making women’s gestational labor a business, the regulation of women’s bodies, and the legal freedoms of women in, what many opponents called, the “reproductive marketplace.”

While surrogacy is banned in theory, there is a black market in China that provides the service to desperate couples with fertility problems. According to detractors, the underground wombs-for-hire business is a result of the government’s lack of law enforcement, and it poses additional risks to surrogate mothers, whose rights are not protected by laws.

However, advocates for commercial surrogacy argue that despite the financial transactions involved, at the heart of the practice is science helping people achieve their dream of having a family. They stress that by legalizing the procedure, the government can better regulate the market and  encourage the proliferation of the technology, which can potentially boost childbirth rates and address the demographic challenges faced by the country.