The soon-to-be Chinese father was getting ready to go to America. His wife, due to give birth to their son any day, was already there. Like any expectant parents, the Shanghai couple agonized over how best to prepare for the arrival — and upbringing — of their firstborn child. American citizenship, they decided, was one of the finest gifts they could bestow. “America is the strongest country in the world,” says the Shanghai native, whose son was born just days after he eventually arrived in California this month. “We want our child to have the best future.”
The U.S. is one of the few nations where simply being born on its soil confers citizenship on a newborn. That policy has spawned a birth-tourism industry, in which pregnant foreigners flock to American hospitals to secure U.S. passports for their babies. Although the foreign couple can’t acquire U.S. nationality themselves, once their American-born offspring turn 21 they can theoretically sponsor their parents for future U.S. citizenship. Another perk: these American-born kids can take advantage of the U.S. education system, even paying lower in-state fees for public universities, depending on where they were delivered. (California is a popular birth-tourism destination because of its well-known university system.)
More rich Chinese than ever are sending their families and money abroad. One study of Chinese millionaires found that half had either emigrated or were thinking of doing so. Boston Consulting Group estimates that Chinese have some $450 billion stockpiled overseas. What’s driving the exodus? Some wealthy citizens are spooked about the impact of an anticorruption campaign on their murkily sourced income. Others worry about the long-term risks of raising their kids in a polluted environment with dirty air, water and food. The pressure-cooker atmosphere of Chinese schools makes overseas schooling attractive. And even though China’s draconian one-child policy is being loosened, some couples feel it’s easier to give birth overseas and circumvent meddling by Chinese family-planning bureaucrats.
All of which has led to a proliferation of so-called anchor babies. At least 10,000 such Chinese babies were born in America last year, according to an estimate by an online platform dedicated to monitoring and rating confinement centers for Chinese women giving birth in the States. Naturally, a thriving business catering to these tiny foreign passport holders has developed. The Jia Mei Canadian and American Baby Counseling Services Center, with offices across China, charges between $30,000 and $40,000 to women who want to deliver babies in the States. The fee includes a plane ticket, accommodation in Los Angeles or Chicago in a two- or three-bedroom apartment or house, plus all the citizenship paperwork for the newborn. Women spend two months in the U.S. before delivery and one month postpartum. Nannies, drivers and a chef will be shared among three women, promises Jia Mei. Of course, Chinese-speaking doctors will be on call.
Last month, Jia Mei, which has been in business for seven years, helped eight clients give birth in the U.S. and another six in Canada, according to an employee surnamed Lu. The agency’s extensive website features pictures of cheerful blond kids — though it’s not clear how the average Chinese couple will produce such a child. A 24-hour online hotline allows clients in the U.S. or China to write in with any question they might have. The agency even offers a primer on how the U.S. welfare system works and recommends the best organic beauty products for pregnant Chinese staying in the States.
The Shanghai couple didn’t use an agency. An English-speaking sales manager, the wife simply procured a business visa to the U.S. — something she had successfully done before — and set up camp in Rowland Heights, Calif. The L.A. County community, among others, has become notorious for a proliferation of “maternity hotels” for privileged expectant mothers from China. She has hired a nanny for her son and expects to return to Shanghai with the newborn in a month’s time, after the U.S.-passport paperwork is completed.
China doesn’t allow for dual citizenship, so American-born babies will have to procure Chinese residency through sometimes shady means. (Yes, there are plenty of agencies that help with that task as well.) There are other catches. Eventually, young Americans, even those living abroad, are supposed to file tax returns and possibly pay taxes, something that’s not widely known among many Chinese parents. Jia Mei’s website, for instance, doesn’t mention this potential financial obligation.
The Shanghai father doesn’t expect his son to return to America until he’s in junior high school and can profit from the relative freedom of the U.S. education system. But his wife has so enjoyed her time in California that she’s considering adjusting their timetable. “My wife thinks the air in L.A. is very good, and the food safety is good,” he says. “The weird thing is that many products are actually cheaper in America than in China. Maybe it makes sense for my son to live there sooner rather than later.”
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing