Mei Bao Ma (China)

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Mei Bao Ma 🇨🇳
China map.png
Location: China
Definition: ‘Birthright tourism’; travelling to give birth in the USA in order to acquire American citizenship for the child
Keywords: China – East Asia – USA – North America – Family – Motherhood – Citizenship – Birthright – Kinship – Borders – Migration – Healthcare
Clusters: Playing the letter of the rules against their spirit – Getting things done
Author: Hui Guo
Affiliation: Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

By Hui Guo, Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

Mei bao ma (美宝妈) – literally ‘mother of an American baby’ – refers to the practice of ‘birthright tourism,’ whereby Chinese mothers-to-be travel to the USA with a purpose of acquiring US citizenship for their children and, in the long term, for themselves and their family. This practice is based on the legal principle jus soli, the ‘right of soil’ in Latin, that grants citizenship to those born on a particular territory (Wydra 2009: 2, Scott 1930: 58). Jus soli is exercised in 33 countries, among which the USA and Canada are the only developed countries (World Atlas 2018, Numbers USA 2018). Chinese birthright tourism practice is aimed at increasing social capital, enhancing one’s social standing, and creating opportunities to develop new connections, perceived as important in Chinese society (also see guanxi).

While birthright citizenship is legal, birthright tourism is informal. While not illegal, it exploits the jus soli doctrine for personal advantage. Donald Trump has voiced his concern over the so-called ‘anchor babies’ in the United States (Flanagin 2015). Acquiring birthright citizenship is seen by some as an exploitive strategy and a ʻsinister kind of way of achieving U.S. citizenshipʼ (KCET 2018). For a family, an ‘anchor baby’ is a long-term strategy for entitlement to permanent US residency, and for enhancing family’s life chances and education possibilities. The parents may join the child once they reach 21 years of age, although there is no guarantee that such an application will be successful (Semotiuk 2014).

Concerns over this ‘abusive and exploitive’ practice are related to fears that the increasing number of birth tourists would drain the healthcare and public welfare system (Woord 2018). It has been reported in 2018 that around 40,000 babies annually are born in the US to Chinese mothers on travel visas (Fonrouge 2018). However, birthright tourists are not eligible for healthcare or travel insurance. The parents bear the cost themselves: $32,093 for a vaginal birth and $51,125 for C-section, inclusive of new-born care (Glenza 2018). When the parents declare giving birth as the reason of their visit to the USA at the visa application stage, they must provide evidence that they are able to cover all medical costs, and thereby add no financial pressure on the healthcare system (Oni 2016).

It is estimated that the mei bao ma tourists accounted for about 1% of the 2.2 million Chinese tourists visiting the US in 2014 (Ramakrishnan 2015, Emont 2017). This new trend, associated with luxury and affluence in China, stems from the increasing wealth of the middle class. As China opens up to the world, better-off people contemplate possibilities for solving their problems and plan for the future. Initially, birthright tourism was used to circumvent Chinaʼs one child policy, rigidly enforced in China since 1979 but relaxed in 2013. Birthright tourism began to increase when China became ‘plagued by health scandals that have instilled fear into expectant mothers,’ such as tainted infant milk powder and the lack of epidural anaesthetics during labour (Sheehan 2015). Pull factors associated with benefits of an American citizenship also played a role. Holding a US passport allows a visa-free or visa-on-arrival travel to 174 countries, thus increasing the childʼs opportunities (Oni 2016). The most cited reason for birthright tourism is ʻeducation of the next generationʼ (Fonrouge 2018). A child with an American passport will be able to apply for Chinese international schools, which are more affordable than private schools and hold higher standards of education (Bourgon 2017). Pursuing higher education in China as an international student is a less competitive option compared to the annual battle of 10 million students applying for 6.6 million spots at Chinese universities (Richburg 2010). If they stay in the US, US-born Chinese children enroled in free public education are also entitled to numerous benefits: accessing perceived better educational resources and more diverse campuses; by-passing high overseas tuition fees (Jacob 2017: 156); and qualifying for government aid, scholarships and government jobs (Oni 2016). Yet to study in the US, the child must have legal guardianship or custody by a US citizen (Semotiuk 2014). Children of parents unable to obtain a visa or custody often return to China.

Taking part in the mei bao ma idea can be expensive. Giving birth in American hospitals is considered the most costly in the world. For example, the luxurious accommodation suite provided to the Duchess of Cambridge during the birth of Princess Charlotte in London, UK is believed to have cost $18,000, which is much cheaper than many routine births in the US (Glenza 2018). Further costs come from stays at ʻmei bao ma hotelsʼ after giving birth: between $29,048 and $43,573 for the duration of their stay (Lin 2017). Maternity hotels host women during the period of ‘postnatal confinement’ before and after birth, a norm for Chinese mothers (Haque 2017). The multi-billion-dollar maternity hotel industry is a significant driver of the increase of birthright tourism and provides service at every step, from consultation and visa application, to hospital care and entertainment. The hotels have an expanded range of services for the wealthier Chinese clients. For example, the Meibao Zhijia company offers 4- and 5-star hotels and resorts, curated meals, valet service, organised tours, hospital care, recreation classes, on-site nurses, translation services, and visa support (Meibao Zhijia 2018). This lucrative tourist industry is often cash-based and profits fall outside of the US formal economy (KCET 2018). The companies that ʻskirted tax law, flouted immigration laws and helped their clients defraud U.S. hospitals of tens of thousands of dollars for each baby bornʼ failed to report profits of over $1 million per maternity hotel, it is estimated (Phillip 2015).

Cheaper and simpler birthright ‘loopholes’ exist for less wealthy families (Grant 2015:165). Saipan in the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean falls within the US jus soli jurisdiction. The Chinese citizens are able to visit the island visa-free for up to 45 days, with a simple procedure to extend their stay. The number of mei bao ma who entered as tourists has increased from 8 in 2009 to 472 in 2017. The growth is not overwhelming, considering the size of the Chinese population, but significant and expected to increase further.


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