Nanfu Wang, co-director with Jialing Zhang of the extraordinary documentary “One Child Nation,” was born in 1985 in rural eastern China before immigrating in her mid-20s to the United States. Her years in China coincided with the government-mandated one-child-per-family policy, instituted in 1979. Officially intended to ward off famine in a country of more than a billion people, the policy was not changed until 2015, by which time several million babies, mostly girls, were aborted, abandoned, placed in orphanages, sold off to Westerners, or left to die.
Wang returned to her village to document the repercussions of the policy because she wanted to understand its effect on both her family and the wider Chinese society. A first-time mother, she wanted to more fully comprehend herself.
The stories she documents, although most are recounted by the interviewees with an eerie matter-of-factness, are harrowing. An aunt tells how she turned over her baby girl to traffickers. Her uncle recounts abandoning his baby girl in an open-air market where, mosquito-bitten, she eventually died. Wang was one of the relatively lucky ones. She was her parents’ first child, and because boys are prized in China, some families, mostly in rural areas, were allowed a second shot at having a male baby. Often bribes were involved. Her guilt-ridden brother, five years younger, apologizes to her for having had career opportunities denied her.
The continual refrain Wang hears from her interviewees is “I had no choice.” Women who violated the policy were often forcibly sterilized, their homes bulldozed. Even within her own family, Wang is surprised by the note of resignation. Her aunt says, “I harbor no hate. It is my fate.” A family planning official, Jiang Shuqin, proudly shows off her certificate of commendation.
The most powerful camera subject, because she seems to embody both the brutal efficacy of the one-child policy and its tragic consequences, is the 84-year-old midwife, Huaru Yuan, who delivered Wang and was in charge of some 60,000 sterilizations and abortions. Yuan supported the policy, as did Wang’s family, but she says she lives to “atone for my sins.” “I was the executioner,” she says. Her home is decorated with hundreds of flags featuring photos of grateful families, post-policy, whose babies she helped to conceive. Wang wants us to know that Yuan, and many others like her, was also a victim.
Equally compelling are Wang’s interviews with Duan Yueneng, a trafficker, who details how babies were often discarded in trash bins, or by the roadside. He would sweep the area to recover those still alive. (The government quietly sanctioned these sweeps, often taking kickbacks.) He would then bring them to orphanages where they were sold for adoption to Western families, who because of forged documents, knew nothing of the babies’ true backgrounds.
A Utah couple, Brian and Long Lan Stuy, who have three adoptive Chinese girls, are prominently featured in the film’s second half. Their extensive database aims at matching Chinese adoptees with their birth families. But they are nonplussed by how few of the adoptees want to reconnect with their Chinese parents.
The cruel irony is that, because of the generational effect of the one-child policy, China is now a society in which the workforce cannot sustain a booming economy and there are not enough caregivers for the elderly. Whereas the film starts out showing us old propaganda billboards and clips exclaiming the glories of the policy – “Fewer children makes for a happier life!” is a typical chant – the same propaganda machine is now extolling two children as the mandated ideal.
Wang began this film as a way to rediscover her own past. It does far more than that. It will help ensure that the full tragedy of those years is not forgotten. Anyone who sees this film is not likely to forget.