Surrogacy row in China: An actress and two abandoned babies

Society & Culture

The Chinese internet has been consumed today with allegations that a famous actress abandoned two babies born by American surrogate mothers.

Zheng Shuang Zhang Heng

A heavily rumored international surrogacy dispute that involves a high-profile Chinese actress, her ex-boyfriend, and two allegedly abandoned children in the U.S. has sent the Chinese internet into meltdown. Central state-run media — such as People’s Daily and Xinhua  — have strongly condemned the couple’s behavior and stressed the prohibition of commercial baby business in the country.

The nasty end of a whirlwind relationship

The news broke on January 18 when Zhāng Héng 张恒, the ex-partner of 29-year-old actress Zhèng Shuǎng 郑爽 complained on Weibo that he had been “stranded” in the U.S. for more than a year to “protect and take care of” two surrogate babies that he had with Zheng. Calling them “two young, innocent lives,” Zhang said that he decided to speak out because of rampant rumors about his disappearance from the public eye.

“I swear I never engaged in fraud, borrowed money from loan sharks, hid from debt collectors, nor fled to the U.S. All these rumors are false,” Zhang claimed in a Weibo post (in Chinese). “When I realized that my family had also become a target of malicious attacks and cyberbullying, I felt like it was time for me to break the silence.”

Zhang further added that he had hired lawyers to represent him in both Chinese and American courts. “I believe they will present the truth to the public,” he wrote. 

Zhen and Zhang, who was previously the CEO of a gaming company, were first rumored to be together in 2018 when they were photographed holding hands in public. After keeping their romance in secret for months, the pair confirmed their relationship later that year. They founded a tech company together and made appearances on reality dating show Meeting Mr. Right. But a few months ago, Zhen publicly ended the whirlwind relationship. 

The duo’s break-up was reportedly a very nasty one, filled with infidelity accusations from both sides and financial conflicts that stemmed from their joint entrepreneurship. But little was known about the pair’s surrogacy arrangement. Until now.

‘Get rid of the babies’ 

Shortly after Zhang’s post went viral, he shared with local entertainment reporters two birth certificates from the states of Colorado and Nevada, which appeared to belong to his son, who was born in December 2019, and his daughter, who was born in January 2020. Both documents named Zheng as their mother, with a date of birth matching her identity. Zhang also told the reporters that because Zheng refused to sort the paperwork regarding the two kids’ brith, they were unable to obtain passports and visit China. 

To make matters messier, an anonymous friend of Zhang leaked a series of recordings (in Chinese) to NetEase Entertainment yesterday. The recordings appear to include Zheng and her parents making feverish last-minute attempts to find ways to “get rid of the babies,” and attempts to get Zhang’s family on board with the idea. At one point, Zheng’s father suggests that the pair abandon the babies, to which Zhang’s parents firmly replies in the negative, explaining that child abandonment was illegal in the U.S. 

Zheng, on the other hand, had earlier lobbied for abortions to end the pregnancies. After being told that the children couldn’t be terminated since they were already seven months old inside their surrogate mothers, the famous actress made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with her children. Her exact words: “Fu*k. This is so much trouble” (他妈的, 我都烦死了).

Users of Chinese social media immediately responded to the recordings with an outpouring of shock, disgust, and indignation. Many condemned Zheng for her “irresponsible behavior,” calling her “morally bankrupt.” On Weibo, the hashtag “Zheng Shuang once proposed aborting the fetuses” (#郑爽曾提议打掉孩子#) has been viewed over a billion times, with the majority of comments calling Zheng’s actions “despicable” and “vile.” A Weibo user wrote: “I’m frankly stunned by how cold-blooded and selfish she is. The way she talked about those babies…there was no love. She saw them as disposable commodities.”

Zheng Shuang Zhang HengZheng is no stranger to controversy, having raised eyebrows for her questionable behavior and comments for several years. Last year, the actress faced allegations that she had been stealing prop toys from reality shows that she appeared on and rebranding them as “personal belongings” to sell on second-hand online marketplaces. In August, Zheng had a visible mental breakdown in an ecommerce live streaming session, during which she told viewers not to purchase a product that she was paid to endorse. 

In the wake of the surrogacy drama, many of Zheng’s past strange behavior also returned to the spotlight, which led many people to suspect that the actress was in need of mental health treatment. “There’s something off about her. I can’t really put a finger on it but I think professionals can,” a Weibo user commented.

Aware of the growing criticism, Zheng (sort of) addressed the controversy today in three vaguely-worded posts on Weibo. “Since the year before last, my lawyer teams in China and the U.S. have never stopped working to protect the rights of me and my family,” she wrote in the first post regarding the spat. “In China, I never violated the country’s directives. Abroad, I also respect all laws and regulations.” In another post, Zheng positioned herself as a victim of Zhang’s infidelity, alleging that he had stolen money from her bank account. 

To many observers’ disappointment, there was no mention of surrogacy in Zheng’s responses. The omission was perceived by many as a calculated attempt on Zheng’s part to shift the focus of the conversation. “I don’t care about the alleged cheating and theft. I just want to know if you really hired surrogate mothers and if you will take responsibility for the children,” wrote (in Chinese) a skeptic.

Surrogacy tourism, surrogacy controversy  

Commercial surrogacy was outlawed in China in 2001 due to ethical and legal concerns, but fueled by high demand and high rewards, black market surrogacy has been booming in the country. Meanwhile, the prohibition has made America an increasingly popular travel destination for Chinese couples seeking out the service to have babies legally in a foreign country. 

In recent years, a group of Chinese people have been advocating to legalize the practice. Their main argument is that by bringing law enforcement into the picture, the underground wombs-for-hire business can be better regulated, and the rights of surrogate mothers can be better protected. But their voices have been met with strong opposition from detractors and state-run publications, who argue that legalization would inevitably reduce women’s gestational labor into a for-profit business and ultimately result in commodification of women. For example, last month, a short film directed by famous filmmaker Chén Kǎigē 陈凯歌 caught a great deal of backlash for portraying commercial surrogacy in a relatively positive light.

Since her scandal sent Chinese social media into a frenzy, Zheng has found herself the target in a slew of critical commentary published by high-profile state-run media. In a harshly-worded article (in Chinese), Changanjian, the official WeChat account of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China, lambasted Zheng for “taking advantage of the loopholes in the U.S. legal system” and “having deviant world views and twisted moral values” as a public figure.

And while Zheng probably won’t face legal implications in China for hiring a surrogate mother in the U.S., the scandal has already taken a major toll on her image: Fashion news site WWD reported that Italian luxury fashion house Prada terminated Zheng’s ambassadorship today, citing the “significant recent media coverage of her personal life” as the primary reason to cut ties.