One Child Nation
Filmmaker Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow) was born in China in 1985, just a few years after the country’s one-child policy began. She grew up surrounded by posters, advertisements, songs, and performances glorifying the idea of each family doing its part to preserve China’s future by having only one child. The message was clear: more money for each province, more food for each family, and more love for each child would result in a stronger China.
Wang never gave the policy much thought growing up (except to feel ashamed or excluded when the city kids found out she had a little brother—which was sometimes allowed in rural families). But when she moved to the U.S., and gave birth to her first son, she began to question the ideology she grew up with. What were the implications of this strict policy, which stretched from 1979-2015? What really happened behind the scenes? Who suffered, and who gained power? This is the subject of Wang’s documentary One Child Nation.
The movie is riveting and, to put it bluntly, pretty brutal. I watched people explain how it was common to abandon children in the local market, hoping someone else would take the child so that their own family could escape censure, fines, shame, or destroyed homes. Local government officials and doctors enforced the policy by any means necessary, including kidnapping pregnant women, forced sterilization, and forced abortion. The abundance of abandoned babies led to lucrative human trafficking, which in turn spiraled out to feed a boom of international adoption.
Wang patiently moves from subject to subject, asking probing questions about the years of her childhood, digging deep into this mysterious and violent past. Why did so many daughters suffer and die? How could a mother, father, or aunt take a helpless baby and leave it on the side of the road? Are doctors able to live with themselves after performing so many procedures against the will of their patients? Why did traffickers—who saved so many lives—often face jail time while those in power profited from their actions?
But her subjects are straightforward and calm in their responses, sometimes regretful of their actions, and sometimes not.
“Policy is policy. Would could we do?”
“The one child policy was very strict.”
“I had no choice.”
“What’s to hate? Policy is policy.”
Because of cultural and patriarchal expectations, families were desperate to have sons. And citizens are taught from infancy to value the good of the nation, the good of the party, above their own thoughts and feelings. You can learn to suppress a lot when you’re doing it for a higher power.
The watch is a bit of a culture shock for this born-and-bred individualist American. The conversations about abortion, specifically, are incredibly different from how that topic tends to be discussed in the U.S., where reproductive rights are such a hot-button, tug-of-war issue. During the one-child policy, forced abortion was one of many tools weaponized against women’s bodies. Wang cuts to the heart when she admits, “I want my son to have a sibling like I did. But I want that decision to be my own.”
Wang’s exploration feels incredibly personal. I, too, was born during the one-child policy era, just a couple of years after Wang. And like her, I was my mother’s first daughter. But the big difference? I’m the third kid, with two older brothers ahead of me. If my parents had lived in China instead of North Carolina, my little sister and I would never have been born. Or if we had been, our lives would have been short and painful. It’s a sobering thought to consider.
One Child Nation exhibits all the qualities of a great documentary: fascinating story, gripping subjects, twists and turns, and a strong call to reflection. I love Wang’s courage in returning to her homeland, her baby son in tow, to ask these hard questions of her friends, family, and former neighbors. You can often see her reflection in a stray mirror as she chats in someone’s living room or kitchen, and it’s easy to see that she’s just a young woman, like me, trying to make sense of this complicated world she was born into.
There’s too much in One Child Nation to touch on here, but suffice to say, it’s a must-watch that asks some of the most important questions of the modern world.
Does love of one’s country automatically mean supporting its government? And when a government forces its people to enact such violence upon one another in pursuit of a “greater good,” are there ways to atone?
An artist and photographer that Wang interviews insists that “the most tragic thing is for a nation to lose its memory.” Wang and her crew (all born under the one-child policy) are certainly doing their part to make sure that awareness about this period of Chinese history—and its effects on a generation of children, and even on the world at large—never fades away.