A donor passes a jar of his sperm through a window to be checked in a sperm bank in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Photo: CFP
“Thanks for coming,” the nurse suddenly said as he was just about to sneak out of the hospital. Mao, a college student from Zhejiang Province, blushed bright red. Despite all his exertions, his jar at the sperm donation clinic was empty.
The nurse rewarded Mao and his two companions with 300 yuan ($47.5) each for their hard work, and asked them to come again and also bring along their classmates. They left the room covered with embarrassment.
It was March 2011 when Mao, a college student from Zhejiang Province, and his two roommates were lured by quick money. The advertisement for sperm donors posted on campus promised they could easily earn 3,000-4,000 yuan by donating their sperm, almost half of their annual tuition fee, plus a free medical check-up. Sperm donors receive more than blood donors, Mao said, because the work is done by hand.
“It is a top secret in our dorm, no one knows we did it because we were so embarrassed by the whole thing,” Mao told the Global Times. It was his first time as a donor. He said he was relieved the nurse did not find out the jar was empty.
College students are the largest sperm donor group in China. Mao and his classmates were feeding a hungry system that doesn’t have the reserves to meet the needs of China’s infertile couples. Approximately 10 percent of all Chinese couples are infertile, similar to numbers in other countries.
All the sperm banks in the country are facing the same situation, Jiang Xianglong, director of the Jiangxi Province Human Sperm Bank, told the Global Times. One reason is that donating sperm is considered to be shameful. Traditional Chinese culture frowns on masturbation, with pseudo-scientific theories and mysticism in the past calling for men to “retain their vital essence.”
College students donating sperm has drawn debate over the morals involved, but Jiang said the root of the problem is the policy that bans sperm donation from being commercialized.
“If we can promote sperm donation as gloriously as blood donation, I am sure we will have enough donors,” he said.
But Mao and his roommates covered their hard work with lies. When they came out of the sperm bank and met another roommate who reneged at that last minute, they lied en masse: “Hey, buddy, you missed a lot. What they said is true. The cute nurse will give you a hand.”
Luo Zhiwen, a family planning official in Guangdong Province recently encouraged college students to donate their sperm to ease the pressures of the province’s sperm bank, as they make up about 90 percent of the donors.
The problem is, as many college students point out, they do not really know how to do it. When sex education is empty, American TV drama steps in. For Mao, it was CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
In the first episode of the first season, two young men decided to donate their sperm to get a little extra money to buy T1 bandwidth for their apartment. But they soon drop the idea, as they believe there’s no guarantee that their sperm is going to generate high IQ offspring.
However, many Chinese people believe college students’ sperm can generate “higher quality offspring” as they are more energetic and healthier.
“It is hard to expect healthy sperm from stressed-out office workers. College students fulfill the qualifications needed from sperm donors. They are young and healthy,” Luo told the media.
Some 22 sperm banks all over the country have launched a secret war to fight for these healthy and qualified sperm.
Attracting college students is a constant headache for an official at a sperm bank in Hubei Province, who only gave his family name as Zheng.
The most common way is to ask the donors to encourage their friends to come. By doing so, they can get a small amount as “commission.” Still, it does not really work out.
“We have had about 100 donors, but many of them stop donating as soon as they leave the university,” Zheng told the Global Times.
This does not really bother Zheng.
As public promotion is officially banned, many universities in the province do not allow the staff from the sperm bank to give out handouts.
“They said if parents found out what we encourage their children to do, they would get upset and angry,” Zheng said.
This does not really bother Zheng either.
What really concerns him is the case where a 34-year-old medical student Zheng Gang died of unknown causes last year during his fifth sperm donation at the sperm bank affiliated with the university. His father is now suing the university for 4 million yuan in compensation.
“Since then, nobody dares to come. We have to reassure them that sperm donation is completely harmless,” he added.
“Just like donating your blood, we tell them,” he continued,” You are letting it out from time to time anyway, so why don’t you do somebody else a favor?”
Many students said they are in it for the money. Those who pass the medical test get paid 300 yuan for each visit. Usually they have to donate 10 times to finish the process, then get 3,000 yuan.
Two workers store sperm in a liquid nitrogen tank kept at below -196 C in a sperm bank in Shenyang, Liaoning Province. Photo: CFP
To lure more students to come, the Guangdong provincial sperm bank has raised the reward to 5,000 yuan. About 2,000 students reportedly donated sperm in Guangdong last year, making up 95 percent of the donors.
The sperm bank advertises through campus networks, and at present attracts about 500 student donors a year. The success rate for healthy donation is less than 30 percent, according to the bank’s official.
The rules of fair play do not apply when it comes to the competition for students’ handiwork. Some other sperm banks are secretly occupying the campus through posting ads on the campus billboards, on the trees, in the men’s rooms or slipping a note under their doors. Some even spread the rumors saying cute nurses may lend a hand.
“Money is not the problem,” said Zheng. “The policy is the problem. We can’t promote it publicly, we can’t commercialize it.”
Meng Tianqing, a volunteer who works at the Hubei provincial sperm bank, told the Global Times that because of the lack of promotional work, many students have no idea what a sperm bank is like.
A college student from Jiangsu Province posted his traumatic sperm donation experience online, saying he was extremely disappointed that there was no cute nurse, but a girly-looking male doctor, to help him clean his vital parts. The rest was DIY.
“The room looks like a cheap motel. The light is really bright. And I could hear everything from everybody else,” he wrote.
“The naughty magazine placed in the room was seriously talking about the art of the body and some pages were even missing,” he continued.
Meng explains that there are many misunderstandings about sperm banks.
“A picture that accompanied the Shanghai sperm bank story that showed some attractive nurses assisting in sperm collection is just a hoax. The donors have to do it themselves,” he said.
“Some worry there might be a camera hidden somewhere. They are just over-thinking,” he continued.
To reveal the mysteries of sperm banks, the Guangdong provincial sperm bank decided to set up a day for public visits in the near future.
Many students find the sperm bank’s advertisement annoying. They worry that if they do it, their parents or girlfriends will be ashamed of them.
Some express concerns that their offspring might end up inadvertently committing incest, a strikingly common trope of traditional Chinese legends about separated children. Or in the worst case, they might die for nothing like Zheng Gang.
But the money is too good to be true. Some did the math. If one person was allowed to complete the donation process 100 times, then he can get at least 300,000 yuan, which equals the down payment of an apartment.
That chance is almost zero, said Zheng. According to the policy, a qualified donor can only donate once (10-15 visits within 18 months) in his lifetime in one sperm bank in China. A maximum of five women will share his sperm.
Some criticize the morality of “selling sperm.” Tang Lixin, director of the Guangdong sperm bank, was quoted as saying that the money is for “transport fees and compensation for loss of working time.”
Meanwhile, Mao and his friends have found that what looked like easy money may be more trouble than it’s worth.