Paradox ? commercial surrogacy is illegal in China, but authorities rarely enforce the ban.
NOTHING illustrates the disconnection between China's socialist past and its free-market present as does the issue of children.
As the country hesitates about whether to further relax its one-child policy, entrepreneurs are cashing in on commercial surrogacy.
China's new "womb brokers" advertise through the internet for young, healthy women willing to rent their womb so infertile couples can have a child. In a society where many still believe being childless is shameful, unprecedented prosperity is fuelling a rapidly growing market for assisted reproduction.
Liu Jin Feng, 30, was a company manager in his native Zhejiang province with a newly pregnant wife when the concept of womb-broking occurred to him. He spent six months investigating if it was a feasible business.
Four hundred babies later, he is confident he has picked a sustainable industry. Couples need at least 300,000 yuan ($45,000). About 40,000 yuan is for the surrogate mother. The rest covers a fee for the agent and medical, travel and living costs.
His first clients, a couple from Zhejiang province who had several miscarriages over 11 years, had their baby in 2005. Since then another 800 couples have been through his unmarked office door in Guangzhou. Only half have left with a baby.
He has 50 agents across the country and about a dozen staff in Guangzhou. Customers fall into three groups: women who cannot give birth, parents who have lost a child and are too old to conceive another, and older couples who want a second baby. He says 80 per cent are university-educated, and most are mainland Chinese, though he has had a small number of foreign couples, all ethnic Chinese, from Britain, Canada, and South Africa, as well as one couple from Australia.
Since Mr Liu's surrogacy business took off, he says another 100 similar businesses have sprung up on the internet with names such as China Baby, Loving Heart, Sunshine Baby, New Hope and Chinese Angel. Some of his clients have been ripped off by dishonest operators.
Mr Liu's mobile phone rings constantly. He says he receives 200 queries a month from couples, but it has been impossible to find more than 30 suitable surrogate mothers a month. Candidates must be healthy and emotionally stable, with at least a high school education and preferably their own child. It is argued that such women understand what they are signing up for and are less likely to get attached to the baby. Although commercial surrogacy is prohibited, like many regulations here the ban is seldom enforced, despite debate about whether it should be legalised, and therefore better controlled, or stopped altogether.
Ms Wang, 28, a tertiary-educated IT worker from Hunan province, agonised for six months before answering Mr Liu's internet ad. She will bear a child for a wealthy Beijing couple who will decide where she will live during the pregnancy and pay her living, medical and other expenses.
Ms Wang's former husband has custody of their child so she is "free to do as I please". She says: "It's not something honourable so I haven't told most of my friends; I've told them I'm here [in Guangzhou] to work." She will use the fee to start a business and says she will have no difficulty giving up the baby, as it has nothing to do with her. Asked if she would consider surrogacy again, she shakes her head emphatically.