Tens of thousands of kids in China were born in the US to maternity tourists. But at 18, they have to decide which citizenship to keep.
By Rong Xiaoqing
FEBRUARY 16, 2022
Rong Xiaoqing writes that Eileen Gu’s success may breathe new energy into maternity tourism as expectant parents in China consider the Olympian a perfect product of the American education system. (Francisco Seco / AP Photo)
When Eileen Gu, the American-born skier, won China a gold medal in women’s Freeski Big Air at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Avanda Jiang, a 10-year-old boy living in Fuzhou, China, didn’t watch. His family doesn’t own a TV, because his parents say television in China is propaganda. But that hasn’t stopped Avanda, who dreams of becoming a soccer player, from deciding he would make the opposite choice of the Olympian’s. “I would play for Team USA,” he said.
Like Gu, Avanda was born in the United States and therefore has US citizenship. Unlike Gu, who grew up in North America, Avanda’s parents, Chinese citizens who went to the US for the purpose of birthing him, brought him back to China when he was 1 month old. While the United States allows dual citizenship, it is outlawed in China. When he turns 18, Avanda will have to decide between a Chinese and a US passport if he wants to travel outside of the country. He is one of the tens of thousands of American-citizen children born to maternity tourists growing up in China. For many of their families, the rising tensions between the two countries has made the choice an increasingly difficult one.
The modern wave of maternity tourists from China began in 2013 with the release of Finding Mr. Right, a movie about a pregnant woman traveling to Seattle from Beijing to deliver her baby. The film gave middle-class Chinese parents eager to provide their children more options in the future—or simply trying to bypass the restrictions of China’s family planning policy, which at the time only allowed one child per family—their “aha!” moment. After all, the $30,000 or so cost of having a baby in the US, including three months of prenatal and postpartum care, was on a par with the penalty of violating the one-child policy set by some local governments in China.
There are no official statistics about the number of babies born to Chinese maternity tourists. But iiMedia Research, a data analyst company in China, said 150,000 Chinese came to the US to birth babies in 2018 alone, 70,000 more than in 2016. Shen Sun, owner of the Own Visa Inc, a California-based company that helps overseas Chinese apply for travel documents at the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles, said that at the peak in 2016 and 2017, the consulate issued 200 “travel permits” per day. That is a document mainly used for babies born in the United States to go back to China with their Chinese citizen parents. That number slowed to 120 to 150 per day before the pandemic.
Sun estimates that on average 50,000 to 80,000 Chinese tourists birthed babies in the US every year between 2012 to 2016. “In the high times, it was common for a flight from China to Los Angeles to be carrying two dozen pregnant women,” said Mike Chen, who owned a maternity care center in the city until travel between China and the United States was halted in response to the pandemic.
The tide had already been ebbing since 2018, when China started to restrict advertisements promoting maternity tourists, and then slowed more in early 2020, when the Trump administration began requiring pregnant foreign visitors to explain why their babies must be delivered in the US to get a visa. China’s recent moves to loosen its family planning policy to encourage up to three children has also helped reduce demand. But Gu’s success may breathe new energy into maternity tourism as expectant parents in China consider the Olympian a perfect product of the American education system.
Meanwhile, the surrogate industry in the United States is welcoming a rising tide of ultra-rich clients from China. “These are people who have been focusing on their careers until it’s too late to get a natural pregnancy, or celebrities worrying baby bearing would affect their figures,” said Annie Liu, CEO of the New York–based Global Fertility and Genetics, a firm providing IVF and surrogacy services. Liu said that in the first year after the firm was founded, in 2016, it had a few dozen clients from China, but the number had jumped to a few hundred before the pandemic. “Surrogacy is illegal in China. And the babies born in the US by surrogate mothers have US citizenship,” Liu said.
As for Gu, her citizenship status is unclear. Despite the International Olympic Committee’s requirement that competitors be citizens of the country they compete for, Gu, who announced via social media in 2019 that she’d compete for China, is not on the list of people renouncing American citizenship that the US Federal Register publishes quarterly. She has been reluctant to be specific whenever pressed by the media. This hasn’t shielded Gu from being attacked by the American right. A discussion on air between Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and Will Cain about Gu’s representing China was peppered by words like “ungrateful,” “shameful,” and “betray.”
Meanwhile, Chinese nationalists hurled insults at Beverly Zhu, an American-born Chinese figure skater who renounced her US citizenship to compete for China, and told her to “go back to the US” after she fell during her performances. They wanted to know why she had been chosen for the team ahead of China-born skaters.
To David Zeng, the father of a US citizen child in Shanghai, the brouhaha is of marginal relevance. His daughter Xiaoji, who was born in the US while he obtained his PhD degree, is only 5. She is too young to understand the identity dilemma of Chinese Americans caused by the increasing hostility between China and the United States. But the education in her kindergarten sometimes unsettles Zeng. For example, children are taught to sing songs praising the Chinese Communist Party and told that some “certain country” had had so many Covid cases that the country no longer exists. He diligently corrects the misinformation for Xiaoji and teaches her to look at China and the world from other perspectives.
Still, Xiaoji’s sense of a dual identity is clear. “When she was 2, she said she was an American. Now, when we told her she is American, she’d say, ‘No, I am Chinese,’” Zeng said. He has built a network on social media of 1,000 or so parents with US citizen children in Chinad. He expects that most of the families will see their children choose Chinese citizenship when they turn 18. “Ninety percent of the parents will find their endeavor to deliver a child in the US makes no difference to the child,” Zeng said.
To Achill Chi, a father in the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou, having his twin son and daughter be born in the United States in 2015 was an extension of his own unfulfilled dream. “I wanted to go to the US when I was young, but didn’t get an opportunity,” Chi said. “Now I want to give my children that option.” But Chinese people’s confidence in their own country, accompanied by rising nationalism, has grown rapidly over the last few years. The pandemic further built up such pride, as many in China watched the US fail to control the coronavirus. “Now the view of America among ordinary Chinese is not so much based on anti-American sentiment, but a sense of disdain,” said Chi. “It’s like China has surpassed the US on every front.”
While such arrogance disturbs him, Chi said that his children’s American citizenship has almost been forgotten. Occasionally, when the topic comes up, the twins will look at each other and put a finger to their lips. “We have never told them to keep their American citizenship a secret. Maybe their grandmother did in order to help them avoid unnecessary attention from other people,” Chi said.
Chinese families may be less willing to steer their offspring back to America if Donald Trump regains the White House in 2024. Immigration policies could become more restrictive—and even birthright citizenship itself could be challenged. “The conservatives were talking about the changes that should be made [to birthright citizenship]. I bet under Trump, they would push to change it,” said Theodore Cox, a veteran immigration lawyer in New York, adding that the current right-wing majority on the Supreme Court might well support the effort.
The American-born Chinese Olympians and the children of Chinese maternity tourists are not the only groups that have faced a difficult situation in times of polarization. In her book American Exodus: Second-Generation Chinese Americans in China, 1901–1949, Charlotte Brooks, a historian at New York’s Baruch College, shed light on the Chinese Americans who went to China to look for opportunities. After initially finding opportunities to prosper in the 1920s, almost all of them had to flee China. At first, that was because of an anti-foreigner atmosphere triggered by the New Life Movement, a campaign to build a Neo-Confucian society launched by Chiang Kai-shek and his Chinese Nationalist Party in the 1930s, and later it was in reaction to the Japanese invasion.
There is more overlap between history and the present time than people may have realized, Brooks said. “One of the things I worry about for anybody who is growing up in a time of growing hostility in both nations is that the shrill nationalism in both places will make their lives very difficult, whatever the identity traces they make.”
Still, Sun of the Own Visa Inc. expects that 20 percent of the 3,000 or so families he has helped to get travel permits will come back to live in the US one day. “These are people who really agree with American values and are longing for democracy and freedom,” Sun said.
Avanda and his family will be among them. “The reason we went to the US to deliver him is to one day live in a country where individual freedom is respected so he won’t become just a brick sacrificed for a great wall the government and the party order us to build,” said Awoter Jiang, Avanda’s father. Avanda has made a plan for himself: He’d like to come to the US after middle school. He’d miss his friends in China, he said, but won’t hesitate to compete with them on the soccer field. Would they be angry with him for joining the American team? “No, they won’t,” said Avanda. “We play soccer all the time at school. They know I am American. And no one gets mad at me for that.”
Rong Xiaoqing @Rong Xiaoqing is an award-winning journalist based in New York, and the author of The New York Times’ Chinese language newsletter “Overseas Chinese Journal.”