I wondered if the thoughts I had were my own or if they were simply learned.
Death is inevitable in war. That’s what a former government official who’s still loyal to China’s communist party tells co-director Nanfu Wang during her (and Jialing Zhang‘s) documentary One Child Nation. While the sentiment is correct, I’m not certain she understands why. To this family planner, the war she’s speaking about is one pitting citizens against the horror of over-population. That was the party line and that’s what many Chinese people continue to believe to this day (Wang’s own mother, a woman almost forced into sterilization because of the one-child policy, inexplicably explains how the country would be overrun by cannibals if not for its success). But that isn’t entirely true since the war was actually against the government itself. Rather than mere death, the inevitability was actually state-sanctioned murder.
Wang and Zhang ultimately prove as much by using the former’s personal connection to the policy as a gateway into its impact. As a communist country, the burden of a self-sustaining system for the population rests on its shoulders. Rather than find a way to divert money that’s probably already tipped heavily in favor of executives, the government implemented a propaganda campaign and constitutional amendment to reduce the number of mouths asking for food. Not only did this ensure that these officials would retain their share of the wealth, it also allowed for the possibility to increase profits by reducing the general population’s need. And as Wang’s journey digs deeper, she discovers it also built an illegal child trafficking circuit netting greater revenue without any threat of retribution.
Her look into the past begins with her own pregnancy in America. About to have her first child, Nanfu couldn’t help but recall what it was like growing up in China during the policy’s run (which changed in 2015 to now allow two children per family)—especially considering she has a brother. Her mother explains why rural areas allowed a second kid (at least five years apart). Her grandfather remembers his fight with the village leader to stop her sterilization. And that retired official talks about the atrocities he and those like him committed to uphold the law. Either they enforced what their bosses said or they’d be punished too. That’s the fear such strict doctrine inflicts. Survival demands that you follow the rules no matter how abhorrent.
From there we witness a conversation with a midwife currently atoning for her sins and another with a planner who regrets nothing. The truth that sides separated by privilege were taken comes into focus. Why does that village leader and midwife feel bad? Because they understand they were just pawns to the government with little to no compensation for what they did. The family planner was conversely in a different boat. She had more power, celebrity, and recognition. She personally benefitted from what she did on a national level whereas the other two only watched as the communities they served rejected them as the enemy. Maybe if Wang’s mother had been sterilized before giving birth to a son, her outlook on the policy would change too.
So it’s no coincidence that many of the people Wang interviews admit they had no choice. They would have been fined, jailed, or worse. Homes were destroyed and possessions stolen as a way to deter others from disobeying the rule of the land. Here’s a nation that adopted abortion into its policy as population control and a mere act of protest—something Americans do every day—could result in mutilation or death. They’re so indoctrinated that few would even think about using their voice as an option. It’s easier to extricate yourself from the pain of responsibility by placing it all on China itself. How else could you sleep? We don’t always realize the freedoms we’re afforded by living in America until seeing how others live without them.
But what about the parents forced to give up children and knowingly let them die or get sold abroad? Wang talks with them too. She must considering her mother’s brother and father’s sister both did exactly that. While it would initially seem amazing that one person in a country of over a billion could have so many first-hand connections to the myriad angles this law possesses, it actually confirms how widespread the effect was. One man who served jail time as a trafficker (a man who saved babies from exposure and turned a profit by giving them to state-run orphanages) says he estimates that he personally found ten thousand. That’s ten thousand mouths the government didn’t have to feed and ten thousand commodities it could package and sell.
This is the revelation that makes One Child Nation so profound. The policy started as a way to stop hemorrhaging money and inevitably transformed into a way to make money with the signing of laws that let Chinese babies get adopted internationally. I’d love to see a documentary about the bureaucratic timeline of this shift because just learning about it tangentially here in the margins is mind-blowing. That doesn’t, however, mean I think Wang and Zhang didn’t go far enough. This film is less about specifics and more about the personal experience and toll endured. They’re sharing the human side of this nightmare in a way that the numbers simply can’t. They’re exposing how the policy’s repercussions will linger for generations well beyond China’s own borders.
courtesy of Amazon Studios