Watching the documentary One Child Nation is a jarring experience, one that begs the question of why there is not more discussion about the horrific human rights violations in China. If you thought you had some sense of the horrors perpetrated by their 35-year “One Child Policy,” you don’t know the half of it. We really do just pick and choose which nations of the world to criticize, based on the pet cause of the moment.
The bizarre thing is, countless Chinese citizens have been so indoctrinated by decades of Communist state propaganda that they openly support the policy, even now, even in the face of their very own neighbors having their homes destroyed by the government for the “violation” of having more than one child. The unsettling thing, which is not very much explored in this film, is the clear efficacy of the policy’s goals. One of the many oft-repeated propaganda lines was that China was “going to war against overpopulation,” and one thing this policy absolutely did do was stabilize population growth which, in the 1980s, promised to ruin the nation of China if left unchecked. Now India, the world’s largest — read: most overpopulated — democracy, is on track to overtake China in population in less than a decade. And India has far less land area.
I don’t pretend to have answers, and neither does this film’s codirector, Nanfu Wang, a thirtysomething mother of one who grew up in China embarrassed to be one of the few children around with a sibling and who now lives in the U.S. There are smarter people out there who might have answers, contextualized with the one overbearing plight that the Chinese use to justify these horrors, which is objectively a horror itself: overpopulation. But surely there are more humane answers than what was historically the Chinese government’s approach.
Here we get into things which, if One Child Nation were aired on broadcast television, would absolutely necessitate a viewer discretion warning. We’re talking about forced sterilizations, forced abortions. Women abducted and forced to get abortions on fetuses at eight and nine months, nearly to term. There are no stories in this film of children being killed once they’re born, but there are stories of so-called “Family Planners” taking part in the abduction of these children whose existence violates the policy, taken to sham “orphanages,” and then adopted out to parents overseas who think the children have no parents. In one such case given special attention here, a teenage girl discovers she has an identical twin living in the U.S.
Nanfu Wang smartly notes that the Chinese forced abortions and the U.S. restriction of abortions are two sides of the same coin: a government denying women their body autonomy. Until Wang brought this up, I wondered how American “pro-life” conservatives might try to twist the message of this film.
And that brings us to perhaps the biggest blind spot of One Child Nation, which certainly examines the cultural favoring of boys in China but does not quite properly contextualize it. Whether it’s China’s forced abortions or America’s forced births, it’s all about the subjugation of women. Is it any surprise that there is not one mention in this film of men being forced to get vasectomies? Instead, we get stories of how many babies die in abandoned sacks in meat markets because a family’s one chance at a baby had the terrible fate of being a girl. Wang interviews members of her own family who openly admit to doing this themselves, including an uncle who is clearly remorseful but explains himself by saying his mother threatened to kill the baby and then herself if he refused to abandon it.
So you can imagine how fucked up the One Child Policy is, if not necessarily as a broad idea, but certainly in execution. This is a nation with so many aborted fetuses that it’s not difficult to find their carcasses in sacks labeled “medical waste” drifting among the garbage in polluted rivers. It’s entirely possible some kind of government program could be implemented that stabilizes population growth in a humane way. It is clearly not possible in a society so deeply misogynistic.
So where does that leave us? Wang’s film offers no insight into how else to address what far too people are talking about right now, which is how really to address population control, the single true cause of global warning and the increasing effects of catastrophic climate change. I don’t expect Wang to have the answers, but given the issues at hand, she should at least acknowledge that they are still issues commanding attention.
There is a slight amount of attention given to the official end of the One Child Policy implemented in China as of 2015, when the realization that not enough young people are around anymore to care of the elderly prompted them to change the policy to two children. But what about families that attempt three children? Or whose first two children are girls? Is there any reason to believe the Chinese government is any less brutal about it now?
Wang, and her co-director Jialing Zhang, make One Child Nation a very direct and personal take on the policy, and that is understandable, especially given Wang’s unusual position growing up as a child with a younger brother — who was only possible under the policy due to their having lived in a rural area, and her parents were forced to wait five years to get a second child. Such details only seem like leniency on the surface, and Wang gets deep into details that will surely be incredibly difficult for many viewers to endure. She’s so focused she doesn’t seem to pay much attention to, say, when she’s inadvertently recording herself and her camera in mirrors.
The makers of this movie are surely to be commended, and these are things the world should know, even if they are so tough to process it’s impossible to imagine it ever finding a particularly large audience. And even if this film can’t show how best to deal with overpopulation, it certainly offers clear lessons on how not to.