Maternity hotels in China are a booming business in the Middle Kingdom and overseas
By Lisa Sun
According to government statistics, 143 million Chinese people were born between 1981-1990, about half the size of the current U.S. population. Some of these 143 million people are now cranking out their own babies, causing another demographic boom – this time it’s a phenomenon that is ripe with business opportunities.
The little emperors of the 80s are a weird bunch. I would know, I’m one of them. We grew up in an era of China’s peace and prosperity. We max out credit cards and watch Hollywood films. We spend lavishly on weddings. And we expect even more for our kids.
The one-child policy has lead to a unique 4-2-1 family structure: four grandparents, two parents, one baby. While this means an aging population later, right now it means the pooling of family resources onto a single baby. Some families are willing to shell out as much as 200,000 RMB (US$30,000) just to have an extra child outside of the one-child policy. And this is the minimum amount they pay in big cities if they can find the right guanxi and bribe the local family planning agency.
For a child that comes so precious and at such high a cost, affluent Chinese families don’t blink at expensive baby services. A typical middle-upper class family may spend US$10,000 on “maternity hotels”, $2000 on “month aunts,” $1000 on “postpartum fitness” and on average more than $500 every month on buying imported formula and baby clothes.
My acquaintance, Mrs. Wen, has spent over US$30,000 in her baby’s first year. To put that number in perspective, in 2012, the average GDP per capita in Shanghai was around US$12,000. If child-care services are expensive in the U.S., they are astronomical in Shanghai.
Compared to her peers, Mrs. Wen is no Chinese Beyonce. She’s just your average Chinese housewife who would still haggle over 1 yuan for pork. But when it comes to buying things for her baby, the laws of economics, supply and demand, and cost efficiency no longer matter. Nothing but the best.
Out of all baby-related businesses, there is no model quite unique as maternity hotels. It is a place that provides postpartum care for mothers and newborn care for babies. They tap into the culture of Yuezi (月子 ), or the month following the traumatic experience of giving birth. Chinese mothers believe that extreme caution in diet and habit during the Yuezi is crucial to healing the strained body. So while U.S. mothers, such as Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, choose to lean in, Chinese mothers are leaning out. For their health in the long run, they choose to recuperate in a maternity hotel for up to two months.
During their stay, they are put on a strict diet (月子餐) and served 4-6 meals a day. And with specially prepared cuisine, 24-7 on-call nurses, a stay at a maternity hotel doesn’t come cheap. Customers pay on average of up to US$10,000 a month. When one is willing to spend that kind of money, Chinese mothers have discovered that they don’t necessarily have to limit their options to China.
Birth tourism – to Hong Kong, Canada and the U.S. – has been booming. Take this website ,www.jiiaa.com. It has 20 sales representative ready to chat with prospective mothers. They advertise maternity hotels based in Los Angeles around Rowland Heights, Arcadia and Chino Hills areas. The sales rep claim from as low as US$10,000 to as high as 50,000, a Chinese mother can have a baby with a U.S. passport.
On its website, they have a picture of their “founder” with Bill Clinton. Their sales force claims strong networks and influence with local politicians. One package even includes a picture of your baby with a local California government official (it doesn’t say who). To a simple Chinese person, with no understanding of U.S. culture or the ability to research in English, this service looks entirely legitimate. And compared to Chinese maternity hotels, these American ones promise not just a clean and safe environment but also instant U.S. citizenship for the child.
In an investment environment tainted with green card scams, unwitting Chinese people find birth citizenship a cheaper and more secure method for U.S. immigration. Most choose this path to avoid China’s one-child policy. It’s either a US$30,000 bribe to the local planning agency or giving birth in America. Would the bribe add any value to the child’s future? Even Yao Ming, the famous athlete, chose to have his baby in America.
Some U.S. media have reported China’s birth tourism as “anchor babies.” They claim these mothers plan to use their U.S. citizen-status babies to move the entire family abroad. In most instances, this is not the case. Most well-to-do Chinese business people have communist ties. They may avoid U.S. citizenship due to tax consequences or political ones. However, they do intend for their kids to be educated in the U.S. and escape the horrible Chinese entrance examinations (高考).
Some mothers, in fact, are materialistic mistresses of rich businessmen or government officials. They even made a movie about this called Beijing Meets Seattle(北京遇上西雅图）, starring Tang Wei of Lust,Caution fame. Tang Wei plays the part of pregnant mother trying to have her baby in Seattle. She buys a ton of luxury products and finds Mr. Right, a Chinese driver/ former cardiologist. But she has her American baby, courtesy of Mr. Wrong anyway.
Of course not everyone is happy with these maternity hotels. Seeing pregnant women walking around with their Hermes bags, Rolexes and loud mandarin has touched a sensitive nerve in foreclosure-ridden neighborhoods. Some local residents in LA are upset. A group called “Not in Chino Hills” have protested on streets and successfully shut down a couple of maternity hotels within their neighborhood.
I emailed Andrew Veis, Assistant Press Deputy to Supervisor Don Knabe of Los Angeles County. Veis says that
they are creating a multi-agency task force (including regional planning, public health, fire department, sheriff etc.) to investigate suspected maternity hotels. Together, they have inspected 42 properties (condos, single-family homes etc.) that received resident complaints. They have identified 12 maternity hotels in those properties, while another 15 denied them entry. While there is no law against operating these hotels, Supervisor Knabe has called for defining what is a “maternity hotel” and drafting an ordinance to regulate them.
The conflict perhaps lays in the demand of maternity hotel services from Chinese tourists and the lack of business regulations. Of course, due to recent reports of crackdown in the states, some more educated moms have chose to do it legally by renting U.S. condos or rooms in suburbs. In essence, they get a more American postpartum experience where they cook for themselves and have shorter resting times, although most mothers are not sophisticated enough to navigate life in America, find their own doctors/hospitals and go against the deeply ingrained Yuezi culture.
There are risks for would-be maternity tourists – Chinese mothers seeking to have their baby abroad face hostility on dual fronts. According to Chinese laws, if both parents are Chinese citizens, their children born abroad can apply for citizenship back home, but must relinquish foreign citizenship. However, a covert dual citizenship is still possible due to the lack of rule of law in China. There are always hidden connections, backdoors for the privileged if you have enough money or the right connections. Plus, parents cannot decide behalf of their children to relinquish U.S. citizenship. In fact, some of these dual-status babies are born out of wedlock to communist officials. To acknowledge the existence of a mistress or a “bastard child” is political suicide in communist China (despite the extreme prevalence of mistresses in official circles). These officials tuck away their young mistresses in the U.S. while supporting them financially. A considerable percentage of officials, following the examples set by the top leadership, are rich beyond imagination. With their overreaching power and authority, it is not too difficult for them to get their children a new legal identities.
So before the U.S. closes its door on these cash-flush tourists and before China becomes a better place to live, expecting moms will continue their journey to the West.