“One Child Nation,” Reviewed: A Powerful Investigation of a Chinese Policy’s Personal Toll
Any investigative journalist could have pursued the story told in “One Child Nation,” a new documentary directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, about China’s former policy (in force from 1979 to 2015) of limiting families to a single child each. Indeed, they include one such daring and persistent journalist in the film. But for Wang, who was born in China in 1985 (and immigrated to the United States in 2011, at the age of twenty-six), the one-child policy is also the story of her own childhood, and in her bold, probingly investigative, painfully intimate film, she approaches her subject with regard to its most personal implications. In so doing, she locates the political network in which lives like hers were caught, and traces the one-child policy’s consequences, as well as the attitudes underlying it, into the present day and into her own life, the lives of others, and the world at large.
Wang is present onscreen as she pursues and conducts interviews, including with members of her family; she frames and analyzes the movie from within by way of her voice-over narration, and her investigation is an integral on-camera element of the action. To watch that investigation, both public and private, is to confront an overwhelming, colossal network of atrocities and their official justifications—a vast system of control and coercion, deceit and corruption, that’s fostered and managed from the highest levels of government and leaves its mark throughout Chinese society. She addresses the ingrained failures of much conventional, arm’s-length journalism and its unchallenged conventions—exemplified, near the start of the film, in a clip of a TV-news report featuring Tom Brokaw, who parrots the Chinese government’s rationale for the one-child policy (prosperity) and says that it is pursued through a combination of “fines, economic incentives, and propaganda.” Wang shows, in the course of the film, how that policy was actually pursued—not merely with fines but with cruelly punitive force and horrific violence.
The core of the film is Wang’s return to her home town—a rural village in Jiangxi Province—with her infant son. She displays the plaques affixed, in her childhood, to the door of each family’s home, featuring stars in checkboxes to show where the family satisfactorily conformed to government policy—and there’s a box for the one-child policy, which her own family didn’t get a star for, because Wang has a brother, who’s five years younger. Wang talks with her mother, Zaodi, a schoolteacher, about how the policy affected her and their family. In rural areas, second children were permissible at least five years after the first, but they were nonetheless actively discouraged, and local officials used threats and force to do so. The one-child policy involved forced sterilization of a woman after the birth of her first child, under pain of severe punishment, such as the demolition of family houses, which Zaodi witnessed. Wang’s grandfather, Zhimei Wang, describes having successfully, if riskily, resisted the forced sterilization of Wang’s mother after Wang was born.
Wang asks a neighbor to bring her to the home of a former political official, the so-called head of the village, now an elderly man, who had ordered her mother’s sterilization. He explains that the policy came “from above,” says that he had no choice in implementing it, and describes what it entailed: when a woman refused sterilization, a batch of officials went to her and physically forced it on her. (He says “It was fucked up,” and adds that he couldn’t bear to watch.) Yet when Wang speaks to him and his wife of her plan to interview women in the region who’d been subjected to forced sterilizations and forced abortions, they try to deter her, warning her that if the former official gets in trouble, it’s her mother, who still lives there, who’ll pay the price.
Wang speaks with one former “family-planning official,” Shuqin Jiang, a woman who proudly shows Wang her plethora of awards and medals for implementing the one-child policy and declares that she has no regrets and would do it again. She adds that, at first, she thought that forced abortions (which also included eight- and nine-month-old fetuses that were born alive and killed) were “an atrocity,” but she was persuaded, as a Communist Party member, to put personal feelings aside and do her duty. She also describes how women who were forced to abort responded: they’d “cry, curse, go insane.” Another former official, a midwife named Huaru Yuan—who delivered Wang—admits to having performed between fifty and sixty thousand forced sterilizations and abortions, and her definition of “abortion” includes infanticide: “Many I induced alive and killed.” She says that women were “tied up and dragged to us like pigs.” (Wang and Zhang show photographs of some of these abductions.) Yuan is deeply repentant: “I was the one who killed, I was the executioner. The state gave the order, but I carried it out.” As penance, Yuan no longer practices midwifery—she is an infertility specialist, who was advised by a monk that she wipes out a hundred killings with each birth that she enables.
One of the central themes that the filmmakers explore is the enduring preference in China for sons over daughters. Wang’s own grandfather, sitting on a stoop in a casual conclave of elderly men, expresses, to her face, a strong preference for sons over daughters, as do his friends—on the grounds that sons continue the family name, and daughters don’t stay in the family but marry into another one. That prejudice, and that preference, prevails among women in China, too: Wang’s own name, Nanfu, means “man pillar,” because her parents wanted a boy. They wanted to have another child because they wanted a son—and if the second child had been a girl, Wang’s grandmother intended to “put her in the basket and leave her in the street.” (The preference has other practical effects—Wang’s mother, widowed young, didn’t have enough money to keep both Wang and her younger brother in school, so she forced Wang to quit middle school and go to work.)
That preference, Wang shows, led to one of the central tragedies of the one-child policy: in the desire to have sons, many families abandoned newborn daughters at birth, leaving them to die. Wang interviews an artist, Peng Wang, who, two decades ago, was working on a project that involved garbage, and, as he rummaged through an alley where it was dumped, he found the discarded body of a female baby. He then looked at other dumping grounds and found many fetuses; he photographed them, and in some cases even brought them home and preserved them. As he described one corpse, an infant that seemed to be smiling, he imagined the meaning of that smile: “It’s as if he knew it’d be miserable to be alive in China, and he was happy to have avoided it.” For that matter, Wang interviews her own aunt and uncle, who describe in detail their abandonment of their own newborn daughter, nearly thirty years ago; the baby died in two days. (Wang also likens China’s policy of forced abortion to American restrictions on abortion—assimilating both countries’ policies to “the control of a woman’s body.”)
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Some of Wang and Zhang’s most remarkable journalism in “One Child Nation” addresses the international repercussions of the preference for sons. In the early nineties, the Chinese government discovered that there was profit to be made by collecting abandoned babies and making them available for adoption; instead of infants being killed, they were instead, in effect, sold and shipped out of the country. Wang probes the case of a family of convicted baby traffickers, whose ostensible crimes proved to be inseparable from official Chinese policy. The traffickers organized a network of spotters, such as taxi drivers and garbage collectors, who’d find abandoned babies and hand them over for a fee; in turn, the traffickers would bring them to a so-called orphanage for another payout. But, as it turns out, the orphanages fabricated, with the help of paid-off local officials, paperwork that falsely portrayed the children as orphaned—the auspices under which families from other countries adopted them—rather than abandoned.
Wang interviews a Chinese journalist, Jiaoming Pang, who reported on this story in 2011 and was then threatened by the government, left the country, and now lives in exile in Hong Kong. (The film includes clips of Pang’s videos in which villagers describe the system by which they were forced to give their babies to traffickers for international adoption.) Wang also spends time with a Utah couple, Brian Stuy and Long Lan Stuy, who have a for-profit venture focussed on tracing American adoptees from Chinese “orphanages” to their birth families in China and who, in the course of their research, have uncovered the practices by which abandoned babies were adopted by (in effect, sold to) unwitting American families.
China ended the one-child policy in 2015—and replaced it with a two-child policy that is now as heavily promoted, on television and in performances, and on slogans painted on walls, as the former policy was. One of Wang’s crucial revelations in “One Child Nation” is the power of propaganda, by sheer force of its ubiquity—and its uncontested hegemony. She shows how pervasive it was, as seen in television commercials (including one exceedingly creepy one, featuring a child threatening viewers with detainment and jail); on posters, playing cards, matchbooks, and food boxes; on the walls of buildings; and in music and dance performances staged locally throughout the country—including in the songs of a choir Wang performed in. (Wang also interviews one composer who borrowed folk forms and infused them with one-child messages, and he performs one of his compositions for the camera.) She says that such propaganda “blended into the background of life in China,” but, more importantly, she shows that it also did something more insidious, penetrating the unconscious of the individuals who lived with it. It’s reinforced through censorship, through the absence of contrary ideas; and censorship also enables the use of force with impunity, suppressing reporting at home and stifling or frustrating it internationally. “One Child Nation” unfolds the self-sustaining mechanisms of a totalitarian state, its efforts to efface conscience. In telling her own story and the country’s, Wang has achieved a work of investigation, personal revelation, historical reckoning, and overarching political morality.