By Anna Schecter
China’s growing class of the newly rich has found a way to skirt Beijing’s hated one-child policy: an extended vacation to the United States for the birth of a second child.
The United States has become a favorite birth destination for affluent Chinese women who want to have more children but avoid fines and scrutiny by their government.
The American born babies are automatically granted citizenship by U.S. law and the parents plan to maintain that status for their children. Once back in China, they never register their babies as Chinese citizens, enabling them to continue to stay off the radar of government officials.
“[Avoiding the fines] is part of the reason I came here,” said Lily from Beijing, who was pregnant with her fourth daughter when she spoke to NBC News in September. She agreed to an interview on the condition that her last name not be used. Like most of the women interviewed, she flew to the United States several months before giving birth and left one month after.
Doctor Helen Hsieh, an obstetrician in Queens, New York, has taken care of at least a dozen Chinese mothers who came to the United States to give birth and avoid the one-child policy.
“They actually will be fined or sent to jail if they were caught to have a second child…even taken to have a forced abortion, so they will have to come to other countries, like America, to have that child,” said Hsieh.
The controversial one-child policy, implemented in the late 1970s, aims to decrease the growth pace of China’s enormous population by limiting urban couples to one child. There are exceptions, but parents who are not exempt are officially penalized with fines for noncompliance.
Reports of professional demotions and terminations, jail time and even forced abortions have drawn outrage from human rights activists for years.
“They happen because of the national level quota set and for the provincial and local officials who are tasked with implementing this policy, they want to meet their quotas, whatever it takes,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of the New York based non-profit organization, Human Rights in China.
Forced abortions are now illegal under Chinese law, but fines of up to one year’s wages are standard and enforcement varies widely around the country, according Hom.
For the wealthy like Lily who can afford the cost of giving birth in a U.S. hospital without insurance --at least $10,000-- having an American baby has become a status symbol.
During a three-month investigation, NBC News gained access to four “birth tourism” centers catering to these women.
Staying in the room next to Lily at one of the centers was Emmy from Shanghai, pregnant with her second daughter. Emmy also asked that her last name not be used.
“Since in China you can only have one child, usually the child is very spoiled, but here in America, the system is about being equal and independent. So it's better for the child,” she said, adding that she hopes her daughter will come back to the United States as soon as middle school.
When asked if she would get into trouble upon her return to China, she shrugged off the question, seeming unafraid of what Chinese authorities might do.
“They will be surprised…they’ll think it’s a good thing [that my child was born in America],” she said, referring to friends and neighbors.
Even if Emmy does not face penalties, life might be more complicated when she returns with her daughter. China does not recognize dual citizenship, so her child cannot become a Chinese citizen without having her American citizenship revoked, and will not be eligible for social services or public school.
“That’s a few years away and the policies might change,” Emmy said.
If she and her husband continue to do well economically, she will be able to afford private schools and health care, enjoyed by China’s economic elite.
NBC News’ Rima Abdelkader contributed to this report.