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'One Child Nation' Review: A Chilling Look at China’s One-Child Policy

Nanfu Wang grew up in China ashamed she had a younger brother. She didn’t know why. Matchsticks, posters, operas, parades, and walls were inscribed with maxims, like nursery rhymes, programming the ideal of the one-child family. To be in a family with two children seemed like an anomaly. Indoctrination had an incalculable impact on the elders and youths of China. Wang was no exception. She shows a photo of her child self, in a choir where she sang about the evils about having more than one child.

Directed Wang and Lynn Zhang, both of whom had first-hand experiences with the psychological effects of the one-child policy, One Child Nation assembles interviews with Wang’s family members, acquaintances, ex-officials, propaganda artists, ex-traffickers who carried abandoned babies to sell to orphanages, American adoptive parents assembling a database to reunite torn-apart families, an exiled Chinese journalist, and a girl bereaved over her missing twin. Woven in are her personal perceptions, shaped by the birth of Wang’s son. 

In 1975, China enforced its one-child policy, a birth planning program and social experiment to save on resources. In 2015, the government relaxed its policy to allow two children per family—requiring updates to the propaganda songs. However, survivors of this one-child policy period are left to contend with the trauma of extreme family planning policing, where having more than one child could subject a family to fines, see their house demolished, have them shamed, and often suffer the heartbreak of giving away said child. Living in rural areas, family planning options were limited, with some families permitted to have two children as long as the second-born was born five years after the firstborn.

Nanfu’s name translates to “Man Pillar,” and this detail represents how the one-child policy damage is linked to the male preference ingrained in Chinese culture. The lack of opportunities for women attributed to a disproportionate discarding of girls over boys. Before Nanfu was born, her parents preferred a boy. The grandmother states that, had her mother’s second child been a girl, they were prepared to place the infant in a basket and send her down the river. In desperation, parents forced themselves to part from their children. An uncle recounts his grandmother threatening suicide if he didn’t do something about his newborn girl, so he left his newborn daughter out on the street, hoping she would be taken in, only for her to be consumed by insects. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is a motif throughout the testimonies.

Nanfu gives her testifiers the appropriate space to voice their opinion, their grief, and even their adherence to a fundamentalist enforcement. She interviews an official who enforced the policy. He doesn’t regret his position, but holds some guilt as he admits to watching from the distance when officials chased and held down a woman to sterilize her. Many, including Wang’s parents, felt the one-child policy had saved them from starvation, despite the emotional turmoil. Even those who say “policy is policy,” and feel they have benefited from the one-child policy, frequently mention “no choice, no choice.”

Entangled are others in the impoverished margins of Chinese society. Wang assumed baby traffickers—called “matchmakers”—were greedy people for selling babies to orphanages. Turns out, the former traffickers she interviewed expressed more complicated motives. When transnational adoptions opened in China, matchmakers perceived it was better to gather abandoned babies to sell to orphanages than to leave them out for dead, as well as have money to assuage their poverty. 

In affecting sequences, Wang finds the extreme ways people cope. Wang meets the midwife who delivered her and also performed 50,000 and 60,000 sterilizations and abortions—she counted those rather than the deliveries. The former midwife, now fertility doctor, presents a gut-wrenching visual of crimson flags with pictures of babies, representing each child she helped a parent have. For her, to bring children into the world was penance for the forced abortions she committed—“life taken” as she puts it. Wang also interviews an activist artist who photographs discarded fetuses, fetuses peeping out of waste disposal plastic scattered among the garbage. He shows Wang a pickled fetus, musing about the lives that could have been. 

It’s hard not to see American pro-life—or really, pro-birth—viewers appropriate these personal tales to advocate the life value of fetuses over the autonomy of the person carrying the fetus. As an American woman, digesting One Child Policy when abortion rights in the USA are fraught will evoke some cognitive dissonance that should be confronted. It was hard for my head not to reel over how to find the language to comprehend the injustice of parents undergoing the unwilling expulsion of their fetuses versus the sense of bodily choice and how to define life on their own terms. During the somewhat hurried conclusion, which seems made to anticipate her American audience’s cognitive dissonance, Wang highlights the irony of growing up in China, which enforced abortions, before moving to America, a country now known to forbid abortions to any extent it can. 

One Child Nation sometimes scattershots its compelling narratives into a rushed conclusion. It’s clear that there is always more ground to cover with the intense subject matter and One Child Nation feels like it has more to unravel even when it ends. Ultimate, it keeps the chills up and gives us a lot to digest.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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