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Illegal ultrasounds: conversations with a Chinese businessman

February 28, 2011
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I won’t tell you his real name. Let’s call him Tim.

Rick and I had the pleasure of meeting Tim through his business partners from the US, who happen to know Rick. They so kindly invited us to dinner when they were visiting Shanghai, and so we were introduced to Tim.

He is small in stature and very good-humored. His success is atypical. He’s a self-made business man. Speaks English very well, but has never studied abroad (which is unusual). He runs a factory for a US business partner. He lives in Guangdong province in a small town outside of Guangzhou, the largest metropolis in southern China. He lives in what his American colleagues call “a villa” – a three-story luxury apartment that cost him RMB 3 million. This is a man who started out working as an assistant manager at a factory for RMB 800 per month–less than USD 100/month back then–as he fully disclosed to us. (Talking about how much money you make is not really a taboo in China the way it is in the US.)  He has done well for himself, and he is rightfully proud.

He has a two-year-old son whom he clearly adores – he kept showing me pictures of his son on his phone. Absolutely adorable lil guy. And Tim is clearly so, so proud of his son.

While at dinner, it came up that he has a second child on the way. Rick and I gave each other a look when we heard this, because China has a pretty strict One Child Policy: one family, one child. We know there are exceptions for minority peoples, but Tim is clearly Han Chinese (the vast majority of Chinese people are of the Han ethnicity). Typically, if a Chinese couple has a second child, they are fined heavily by the government. So, we were confused.

He also mentioned that he knew this second child was a son – something that also surprised me and Rick because ultrasounds are illegal in China. This is because families, especially in the countryside, prefer male children; and if they find out the sex of the baby ahead of its birth, they are likely to illegally abort baby girls–a practice much exacerbated by the One Child Policy. It also has created a dangerously wide gender imbalance. Not something the CCP wants, hence the law.

So later in the evening, when Rick and I probed him a bit on these to strange revelations, Tim was totally frank with us about his nation. He explained, with no shame whatsoever, that his family was well-off enough to bribe the local official  who monitors family size to waive the fine. “We know the right person, we are friends, we do business, so I paid him a few thousand RMB,” he explained, and voila – fine-free second baby. He explained, though, that it’s much harder to pull off such a stunt in the big, over-populated cities. His town is small enough, though, that it’s no problem.

It was just amazing to hear him talk so bluntly about the practice of paying off officials. It is extremely common here, and everyone knows it, but in my experience Chinese people won’t discuss this very openly with foreigners like me. Tim is different.

Then we asked about the ultrasound. Turns out, it’s pretty easy to pay off doctors to give you an illegal ultrasound, particularly in the countryside. So he and his wife drove out a few hours to see a doctor in his wife’s hometown.

So many of China’s laws go completely unenforced in the less developed parts of the country that it’s truly mindblowing. I’ve discussed before how traffic laws are practically ignored here; but so are all kinds of laws, from selling fake DVDs, to restaurants using recycled filthy oil in their food, to getting ultrasounds. The way Tim explained it, all you need are relationships with the right people and you can get away with anything.

It really makes me appreciate the American government. Despite our (many) problems, our government is cohesive, laws are enforced, rights are protected, and everything is so transparent. God bless the USA.

Tim also said something that really touched my heart. He talked about how he’s never been able to travel like he wants to , and that one day, he wants to visit all these places in China with his sons. He said no matter what, he’s taking his sons. He wants his kids to have what he never had. And he told me and Rick that he envied us, because we were young and free and able to do things like live abroad before working for a decade or two.

We are incredibly lucky, aren’t we? I get to travel while I’m young, and then I get to have as many children as I want and share the joys of travel with them. I don’t have to bribe a single person to accomplish this. And my ultrasounds will be totally legal.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 26, 2011 8:21 pm

    There has been a huge surge in Mainland mothers coming down to delivery babies in HK, partly because ultrasounds are legal (there’s no gender imbalance here, so it’s just part of regular neo-natal checks) and because there is no one-child policy. The better quality of service probably has something to do with it, too.
    It’s gotten so bad that there are now 6-month waiting lists at HK hospitals, upsetting the local population who, you know, live here and pay taxes. A while back, the HK government had to crack down on Mainland “tourists” showing up at ERs in public hospitals (which are free for HK residents), suddenly announcing that their water had broken and then fleeing a few days later without paying the bill.

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