Entertainment, Society

Scandal over surrogacy

Two celebrity pregnancies set China buzzing with contrasting reactions

Zhang Heng-w

Zheng lost her Prada endorsement deal after row over surrogate babies

On the TV show Scandal, Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, an immaculately dressed crisis management expert in Washington, D.C. The spin doctor helps powerful politicians to contain scandals and manage crises – including the drama’s fictional president of the United States (who also happens to be her secret lover).

But even Pope would have had trouble saving Chinese actress Zheng Shuang’s career after last week’s media firestorm.

In mid-January, Zheng’s ex-boyfriend, 30 year-old TV producer Zhang Heng, took to weibo to explain why he hadn’t been in China for well over a year. He said it was not for any nefarious reason (i.e. avoiding Chinese creditors) but instead as a consequence of his taking “care of and protecting two young and innocent lives” in the US. He attached to this widely-viewed social media post a picture of a family house in which he is seen carrying one child and holding the hand of another.

He later revealed that the toddlers pictured were his own children. Photos of birth certificates posted online showed the names of Zheng and Zhang as the biological parents: a boy born in December 2019 in Colorado and a girl in January 2020 in Nevada. It soon emerged that the babies were born to American surrogate mothers and during the pregnancies the celebrity couple had broken up.

What made it worse for Zheng’s PR image was an audio recording of a phone conversation held between the star actress and her parents, which started to make the rounds across social media as well. In the call, which supposedly took place in mid-2019, Zheng expressed her annoyance that abortion was not a viable option, given the mothers were seven months’ pregnant at the time.

The revelation quickly stirred a wave of angry criticism online, with most onlookers expressing outrage that Zheng had crossed so many “moral lines”.

For one thing surrogacy is illegal in China, although there is still a black market that caters to couples desperate to have kids. But for richer couples such as Zhang and Zheng, the US is a more appealing option, as paying a surrogate mother to have child is legal there.

Zheng attempted to deflect blame on her part by issuing a vaguely worded statement on weibo, in which she insisted that she’d never broken any laws in the respective countries. This week, the 29 year-old also explained that she had opted for surrogacy due to health reasons and she will do all she can to fight for the custody of the two children. However, her response did little to pacify the public.

Zheng first shot to stardom in the 2009 hit TV show Meteor Shower (for more about her less successful stint in e-commerce livestreaming, see WiC508). Her career now looks to have entered a ‘meteor storm’ all of its own as even state media outlets have weighed in heavily to condemn her “irresponsible actions”.

The Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission lambasted the actress for “having deviant world views and twisted moral values”. The regulator (the National Administration of Radio, Film, and Television) later announced that it will blacklist the actress.

The publicity backlash wasn’t surprising. Chinese authorities have been turning up the heat on the surrogacy issue since renowned director Chen Kaige released his short film Ten Months With You last month. Although there are a few lines in the film and a warning at the end pointing out the illegality of surrogacy in China, Chen was blasted by official media for presenting the practice in an excessively positive light.

No wonder the PR nightmare has already cost Zheng many lucrative endorsements. Luxury fashion firm Prada cancelled Zheng’s contract as a brand ambassador, as did a cosmetics company and a watchmaker. According to Entertainment Capital, Zheng has a pipeline of four television shows scheduled for imminent release – all of which are now under threat from the media regulator. She is also one of the mentors on the ongoing reality talent series Shine! Super Brothers. If Zheng was indefinitely blacklisted these shelved projects could cost studios as much as Rmb700 million in lost revenues.

While the country was still riled up by the surrogacy scandal, last Friday, pop singer Hua Chengyu dropped another bombshell by announcing that in his case he’s belatedly welcomed a child into his life, conceived with singer Zhang Bichen. While the two have been rumoured to be dating they’ve never admitted to being a couple.

In a lengthy weibo post, Zhang, 31, claimed that she found out she was pregnant back in 2018 but she’d kept it a secret from Hua because the pregnancy was unplanned. But after her daughter was born, she realised her decision was “irrational”, and that she had deprived her daughter of the right to know her father and Hua the option to be a dad. So she decided to tell him the truth and said Hua was elated to discover he had a two year-old.

Compared with the vitriol Zheng has received, onlookers were noticeably more forgiving to Hua and Zhang. Many even congratulated the couple and expressed their happiness for the newly ‘united’ family (the two did not say whether they have married though Hua’s manager insists that the singer is still single).

“These two chose to welcome the existence of this new life together and take good care of the child’s growth. It is clear that there is so much love for the child just from reading between the lines,” one internet user wrote. Another gushed: “Here we see a happy ending that is filled with love.”

The timing of Hua’s announcement certainly was uncanny. After all, it was only days after Zheng was crucified in the media for the surrogacy fiasco. Others offered a plausible PR explanation for the announcement’s release. “Thanks to sister Zheng Shuang detonating an atomic bomb in the show business world, by comparison you letting out a fart was so innocent, so worthy of fans’ forgiveness,” wrote Niu Dundundun, a society commentator. “It is clear that the handler behind Hua is a very skilled PR expert.”

A lot is at stake for Hua. The singer-songwriter is hugely popular on weibo with almost 39 million followers. In the last two years, he has appeared on magazine covers 17 times, endorsed nearly 20 brands, and appeared in countless variety shows. One estimate is that Hua, who turns 31 next month, has a net worth of over Rmb100 million ($15.5 million).

Still, some say the drastically different reception given to the two stories highlights gender inequality in China: that there’s often one rule for men and another for women.

“What’s shocking about these two incidents is that on the one hand, both portray bad role models for their fans – Zheng Shuang wanting to abort her children or Hua Chengyu having a child before getting married – but the outcome is totally different. For Hua, not only has the media storm already passed, his reputation has shown no sign of taking a hit. Zheng, on the other hand, went from an A-list celebrity to a commoner overnight,” Doudou Entertainment, a showbiz commentator, lamented.

Others complain that the two high-profile scandals reveal a new and laxer attitude to pregnancy and abortion among younger Chinese. “I don’t know when having children started to become so casual? I don’t want to ruin my figure so I find a surrogate; after the relationship is over, I can simply choose to terminate the pregnancies; and you can even give birth without telling the other half? How can one even dare to be so reckless?” another critic thundered.

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