Parental Controls

Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, One Child Nation, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 89 minutes. Close up on found child advertisement. Photo:  Amazon Studios.

IT WAS NOT UNTIL the documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang had been living in the United States for several years and was pregnant with her first child that she began to think about China’s one-child policy. “The personal is political” was an axiom of the women’s liberation movement, invoked most powerfully in relation to women’s right to control their own bodies. Just six years after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made access to obtaining an abortion a fundamental right in the United States—a ruling which has not since been as endangered as it is today—China instituted a policy prohibiting a woman to have more than one child. The law, which had the full weight of China’s propaganda machine behind it, was enforced with extreme brutality; it was not unusual for nearly full-term fetuses to be ripped from their mothers’ wombs, or for newborns to be abandoned in local markets in the near-impossible hope that someone would adopt them. In Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation (2019), Wang shows a photograph of herself in a high school chorus singing in praise of the policy, demanding women to “abort, induce, and sterilize” so that China could be wealthy and powerful.

Wang completed her first documentary, Hooligan Sparrow (2016), just after receiving her graduate degree in journalism from New York University. The film follows the titular human-rights activist (Ye Haiyan) as she demands justice for a group of underage girls who had been pimped out by their middle school principal and raped by local officials and businessmen. To say that the film displeased Chinese authorities is an understatement. Because Wang had barely made it out of China with the Hooligan Sparrow video footage, she decided to enlist Zhang, a graduate school classmate who also grew up under the one-child policy, as One Child Nation’s codirector and coproducer. When shooting began in China, Zhang had not yet caught the attention of the authorities and thus was able to move around more freely than Wang to perform research, contact subjects, and find locations. It was Wang, however, who provided the first-person narration, around which the film is organized, conducted most of the interviews, and took responsibility for most of the camerawork and editing. She began by interviewing members of her immediate family: Her mother still believes that without the one-child policy, China would have descended into cannibalism. Wang’s grandfather prevented her mother from being sterilized, though this was more likely in hopes that she would have a son than out of respect for her bodily autonomy. (As he explains in the film, he is not Wang’s grandfather in the same way that he is a grandfather to her brother, as only a boy can carry on the family name.) Five years after Wang was born, the family was allowed an exemption to have a second child because they were poor farmers and needed the additional set of hands.

Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, One Child Nation, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 89 minutes. Archival photo of Nanfu Wang and her parents. Photo: Amazon Studios.
Edited with exceptional clarity and economy, One Child Nation zeros in on the factors that made the one-child policy easily accepted (though not by women who desperately hid their pregnancies and secreted away their newborns, most often to no avail). Wang interviews two former nurses. One of them—who estimates she performed more than fifty thousand abortions—is traumatized by her own actions and atones for what she now sees as terrible brutality by offering low-cost fertility treatments to women in need. The other, a highly decorated official who proudly shows Wang her medals, still believes that the work she did was necessary and right. China, she explains, was in a “war against overpopulation”; when you are at war, you put your country above your personal feelings. Wang is an excellent interviewer. She allows her subjects time to reflect—many of them are visibly resistant to dealing with the pain they caused.

One Child Nation is both an intimate depiction of life in rural China and a wide-ranging investigation of state coercion and corruption. Wang interviews Peng Wang, a visual artist who was taking photographs of detritus to use in his work when he found the body of an infant and several fetuses discarded as medical waste. His furiously visceral response was to scrawl the outline of a fetus in red paint on every page of Mao’s “Little Red Book.” Among the film’s most eloquent interview subjects is the exiled journalist Jiaoming Pang, whose 2014 book The Orphans of Shao exposed how China’s government, having legalized international adoptions in 1991, profited from trafficking infants who had been abandoned, kidnapped, sold by their parents, or “confiscated” by family-planning officials. The government-run orphanages invented stories that these children were “foundlings,” and the American and European families that adopted them—paying upward of $10,000—had no idea that their parents had been coerced or forced to give them away.

While most of One Child Nation is set in China, the filmmakers made a trip to Utah, where Brian and Longlan Stuy, who adopted three girls from Chinese orphanages, had become suspicious of the stories they were told about their children’s origins. For many years, they have been involved in compiling a DNA database to help Chinese women reconnect with their biological children. It’s not surprising that many American adoptive parents, out of fear that they would be forced to send their children back to their birth mothers, refuse to cooperate. Like Wang’s family and almost everyone else Wang and Zhang speak to in China, the American families disavow the massive human-rights violations caused by the one-child policy. One Child Nation is a compelling and necessary film. Had it not borne witness to the aftermath of thirty-five years of violence against women and children, the program and the trauma it caused would have been easier to excise from history.

In 2015, China proclaimed the one-child policy a great success, and then ended it. In order to cope with an aging workforce and a population in which men vastly outnumber women, the government instituted a two-child policy. In One Child Nation’s opening montage of military parades and musical performances, choruses of women and children celebrate a one-child China. At the end, the form of the spectacles is exactly the same, but the slogans have changed: “One is too few. Two just right. Now the old will be taken care of.”