In America, a family with eight children is the premise for a reality television show.
In China, where most couples are allowed to have only one child, it's a national scandal.
The revelation last month that a Chinese couple were the proud parents of two sets of triplets and one set of twins launched a round of soul-searching about how the super-rich circumvent the one-child policy. It is a tangled case involving a wealthy couple, two surrogate mothers, a gaggle of nannies and, to top it off, a team of government bureaucrats scrambling to figure out how they all came together.
"We are focusing on the case of the octuplets and trying our best to find the medical institutions responsible," a spokesman for the Guangzhou Health Office who gave his name as Sun said in a telephone interview. He said case poses "huge ethical problems."
The babies have stirred up fiery emotions on Chinese Twitter-like microblogs and Internet forums. "In this society, if you have money, you can have miracles!" one sardonic university student wrote on his Sina Weibo microblog. "Having children is now a luxurious game for the rich," wrote a user in Guangzhou, the southern city where the family lives.
A southern Chinese newspaper broke the news that the couple had four girls and four boys with the help of the two surrogates and in-vitro fertilization.
The newspaper had been alerted to the case by an advertisement for a local children's photography studio. In the photo, the babies, who were born in September and October 2010, sit in a line against a pink backdrop wearing identical pink onesies and pointy white hats.
Little is known about the family, which has moved away from its home amid the uproar. According to the article, the parents had tried to naturally reproduce for years before paying a surrogacy agency $158,000 for the procedure.
A reporter from China Central Television interviewed former neighbors, who recalled witnessing an "extremely spectacular scene" when the family strolled around the complex to catch some sun. One neighbor said that the couple had used an American doctor for the in-vitro fertilization.
Many details reported in the state press focused on the family's wealth. The parents hired a team of 11 nannies to look after the children, at a monthly cost of $16,000. For one set of babies' one-month birthday, the parents held a prize drawing in which they gave away eight bars of gold.
The one-child policy was introduced in 1978 to address economic, social and environmental problems in China caused by overpopulation. Although ethnic minorities and some rural couples have long been exempt from the policy, multiple children are also common among wealthy elites who can afford to either travel outside of the country for childbearing or pay the corresponding fines.
An anchorwoman on China Central Television said the intersection of abundant wealth and abundant children has had a discomforting effect on Chinese society.
"Where does this discomfort come from? It comes from unfairness," she said. "Why? Because the vast majority of us strictly abide by the one-child policy. One family, one household, one child."
The babies have unleashed a barrage of editorials in state media about the ethics of surrogacy and in-vitro fertilization. "This completely topples the traditional meaning of parents," said an editorial in the official People's Daily. One editorial in China Daily denounced surrogacy as the "business of renting out organs."
Chinese hospitals have been forbidden to carry out gestational surrogacy procedures since 2001. However, surrogacy agencies seem to be booming in China, as evidenced by a profusion of websites and advertisements offering the service. An estimated 25,000 children in China have been born using surrogate mothers in the last 30 years, according to Southern Metropolis Weekly, a southern Chinese magazine.
Procedures typically cost more than $50,000, about 140 times the average monthly salary for a university graduate in Guangzhou.
Patrick Chan, an obstetrics expert in Hong Kong, said the eight babies are either a result of good luck or extremely aggressive fertilization techniques. "From the sound of it, they just tried to have some kind of baby machine," he said.
Chan said multiple births through in-vitro fertilization also carry the risk of severe complications such as premature delivery. "Doctors see twins as a complication of treatment," he said. "We don't intend to create multiples."
Wang Qi, the manager of surrogacy agency daiyunivf.com, said the scandal hasn't affected her business. The agency continues to be overwhelmed with applications from aspiring surrogate mothers, most of them "people who had emergencies and need a large sum of money." Sales, she said, have been "quite good."
Wang is unperturbed by the media hype and the government response. "There are so many dark things in society," she said. "The woman caused quite a stir, but wait a few days and you won't hear anything more about it."
Kaiman is a special correspondent.