Film

A Disturbing Reckoning With China’s One-Child Policy

Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s new documentary One Child Nation unpacks the history and brutal effects of a policy that dominated a population.

Still from One Child Nation (image courtesy Amazon Studios)

“It was like fighting a war. Death was inevitable,” Shuqin Jiang says in Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation when talking of the numerous forced sterilizations and abortions (often at full-term) she undertook during China’s one-child policy. She was one of the many family planning officials who worked to implement the policy that ran from 1979 to 2015. She’d have no qualms doing it all over again, Shuqin Jiang insists.

When Wang gave birth to a baby boy in the United States, she went back to rural China with her newborn and started speaking to her mother about motherhood and soon realized that the idea of childbirth, an experience that had been joyful to Wang, was intrinsically linked to a whole web of dehumanizing and repressive state policies in China. Nanfu, as Wang explains in her voiceover, means “man-pillar”; a name her parents had expected to give to a son. When Wang was born, they called her Nanfu anyway. Five years later, when her mother was pregnant again, Wang’s grandfather told her mother that if another girl was born, the baby would be left in the street. It was a boy, and thankfully, people were allowed to have two children in the rural areas of the country. The foundation to any policy that curbs the free will of a woman’s body, is the belief that the lives of men are of higher value than those of women and that women’s bodies lie at the disposal of the state and its men.

Ads of children up for adoption shown in One Child Nation (courtesy Amazon Studios)

As the women in One Child Nation speak, starting from Wang’s mother to her aunt, to the repentant midwife, to the proud family planning official, what is heartbreaking is the absence of any semblance of agency. They were all serving to keep up the nameless, faceless entity of a policy that they were made to trust and respect. “Policy is policy”; “The one-child policy was extremely strict”; and “I had no choice” are refrains that haunt the whole narrative arc of One Child Nation, along with the spectres of General Mao and Deng Xiaoping. When Wang recalls how one-child propaganda was a part of every single cultural channel available to the Chinese population — from songs to books to posters to operas — it’s easy to connect it to Louis Althusser’s theory of “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” and the psychosocial ways in which dominant ideologies use seemingly non-violent methods to indoctrinate the general masses and to surrender their free will.

One Child Nation starts as Nanfu Wang’s personal negotiation with her native country’s one-child policy. She speaks to her mother, her aunt, her neighbors, and local government officials trying to make sense of her relationship — as a new mother — with a sexist policy that robbed other women like her of their choices. “I can’t stand my baby crying for a minute, how did you manage to leave your brother’s newborn daughter in the marketplace and watched her die?” she confronts her mother. Then, like a womb, the narrative grows bigger and bigger, slowly expanding to open up an intervention into a larger, more sinister government-sanctioned narrative. It connects the dots to expose how the one-child policy was just a means to feed a systemized state-ordained child trafficking and an extremely lucrative child adoption market. Nanfu Wang picks up strains from what the women in her family dismiss as fate and follows the whole trail until her narrative manages to expose China’s unholy nexus of laws that allowed government officials to forcefully take newborns away from their families and put them up for adoption claiming they were orphans. The state stood to earn at least $10,000-20,000 for every child that was adopted.

Wang is no stranger to ruffling Chinese bureaucratic feathers. Her last film Hooligan Sparrow followed human rights activist Ye Haiyan as she, while being chased from town to town, seeks justice for six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. With One Child Nation, Wang (along with Jialing Zhang) takes on the Chinese government whose childbirth policies have now conveniently changed. After decades of violently implementing the one-child policy, the propaganda on the walls now read, “One is too few; two is just right” in place of “Better to shed a river of blood than to have more than one child.” The woman’s body, of course, continues to remain a powerless, will-less site for child-bearing. “It’s hard to feel responsible for the consequences of your actions when all your life’s decisions are taken by someone else,” Nanfu Wang interjects.

“The most tragic thing is for a nation to have no memory,” says Peng Wang, an artist who preserves and photographs dead fetuses in formaldehyde, in the film. The idea is to force Chinese people to see the real, human consequences of the country’s war on population; the idea is to resurrect the memory to keep it from dying. Just like Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, and their crew of people all born under the one-child policy, strive to do with One Child Nation.

One Child Nation premieres in select theaters August 9.

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