Underneath its wealth, however, is a booming underground industry that is far from legal. An investigation conducted by Shandong TV in May revealed a shocking trade that has given birth to the village's wealth: surrogate mothers.
According to locals, surrogacy has been thriving in this small village since at least a decade ago, although no surveys have been conducted to estimate how many women are involved.
"Most of the young women in our village who want to get rich have been surrogate mothers," a local told Shandong TV. Villagers say many houses are built with the money these women earn through surrogacy.
For these women, becoming a surrogate mother is an economic opportunity. But it also poses a threat to their health and to local values and customs.
Fastest Way to Earn
Surrogacy is illegal in China. It's banned by the Regulations on Human Assisted Reproductive Technology, a 2001 regulation issued by the then Ministry of Health, which states that medical organizations and personnel shouldn't operate any form of surrogacy technology. However, the Law of the People's Republic of China on Population and Family Planning, amendments to which were passed on December 27, 2015, doesn't mention whether surrogacy is legal or not.
Despite its vague legal status, the light punishments handed out, great profits on offer and the increasing demand driven by rising infertility rates — which have gone from 3 percent 20 years ago to almost 15 percent in recent years — has spawned China's booming underground surrogacy market.
There are currently over 300 surrogacy agents in China, according to estimates.
For the women in Qili, renting their wombs and becoming surrogate mothers is an inviting opportunity — a successfully delivered baby means a payday of 150,000 to 250,000 yuan ($22,000-36,000). The payment is higher if they give birth to twins. This is 15 times the average annual income of people in rural Hubei, which was only 11,844 yuan in 2015.
But it's also a form of exploitation — women are sent to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei or further afield to South China's Guangdong Province or Shanghai, where they are locked in the homes provided by surrogacy agents for months, until their baby is born.
In order to earn the money, many women take risks. A woman surnamed Lian told the reporter that both her daughter and daughter-in-law became surrogate mothers a few years ago when they were 40 and 46 — an age at which pregnancy can be highly risky to both themselves and their children.
"I didn't want her to, but my daughter insisted on going. Surrogacy is the fastest way to earn big money. We can't expect to earn money by growing crops in the field," she said.
Due to the high risk of childbearing, surrogacy agents have come up with compensation standards for mothers who don't manage to make it through the pregnancy or are injured during the birth. Miscarriages that occur during different stages of pregnancy, for example, result in compensation from 10,000 yuan to 30,000 yuan, depending on the severity of damage it does to the surrogate.
"If the surrogate mother has to have a hysterectomy, the compensation will be higher," a surrogacy agent in Shanghai told Shandong TV.
The worst thing that can happen to a surrogate mother is death. There are no official statistics on how often it happens, but one villager said a 30-something woman she knows was paid to get pregnant with another child soon after her previous delivery. She died during the pregnancy, and her family received compensation of "tens of thousands of yuan."
When the Shandong TV reporter tried to interview a woman who villagers claimed had just delivered a child last year in Shanghai, she refused. "It's not something honorable to talk about," she said.
These women are introduced to surrogacy agents through local middlemen. One villager said he introduced two women to a local agent last year, and was paid 5,000 yuan for each as an introduction fee.
In Shanghai, the Shandong TV reporter disguised himself as a client searching for a surrogate mother,and visited a surrogacy agent located in a high-rise apartment building.
There are no signs at the entrance of the agency, nor any form of label showing it's a company. But the manager who met the undercover reporter said they've been in the business for nearly 10 years.
"We have sources at local fertility hospitals that provide us our client base — couples who are infertile but desperately want to have children," he said.
The Internet is another source of clients. If one types in "surrogacy" on baidu.com, thousands of results will show up.
The company even built a secret lab, located in a private house at the outskirts of the metropolis. "It's the core of our company because all the embryos — not just one but hundreds — are in the lab. If the lab is discovered [by the police], we will suffer a huge loss," he said.
Clients who want to visit the lab are blindfolded and made to hand over their mobile phones when they are driven to its location.
The cost of finding a surrogate ranges from 300,000 yuan to 1.2 million yuan, depending on factors including who provides the egg, whether artificial insemination will be attempted just once or over and over until success is achieved and if the client wants to decide the sex of the baby. If the client wants to ensure they will have a baby boy, they will need to pay the highest fee.
Even though surrogacy is technically illegal, agents do not seem to fear criminal consequences. "If you're found performing surrogacy operations, the biggest punishment you can get is a fine. Of course doctors will have their licenses revoked. But all the doctors we work with have already had their licenses revoked," an unnamed surrogacy agent in Shanghai told Shandong TV.
Earlier this year, there was a discussion on whether surrogacy should be made legal. Supporters say that considering that the underground surrogacy industry has been booming despite the regulations, legalizing surrogacy might help set industry standards and help it become better regulated.
The high demand for surrogacy — including many parents who lost their only child — is another reason why it should be legalized.
One of the supporters is famous screenwriter Liuliu. "Do you know how many families in China have lost their only child and are yearning for a real family? Even though their sperm and eggs are still viable, the mothers' uterus is no longer suitable for childbirth. How can you deprive them of their right to have a family?" she wrote on her Weibo in February.
Liuliu wrote that compared with these people having a surrogate child via illegal channels and facing the risk of legal punishment, legalizing surrogacy is obviously a better solution.
But these voices are still marginal in China. According to an opinion poll conducted by the People's Daily newspaper on Sina Weibo, asking netizens whether they support the legalization of surrogacy, 81.5 percent of respondents chose "No, because it will bring about social ethical problems." Only about 13 percent said they supported legalization.
The government has rejected any move toward legalization. In February, Mao Qunan, spokesperson of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said in a press conference that surrogacy is a complicated matter that involves legal, ethical and social issues and that the commission will continue to crack down on it.
This article was originally published in the Global Times.