Movie Review: One Child Nation

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😸😸😸😸½  Rated 4 1/2 out of 5 Happy Lap Cats

One Child Nation is a very personal documentary, made by director Nanfu Wang when she had her own first child and began to seriously consider, for the first time, the implications of China’s one child policy, which she had been born and raised under. Wang had relocated to the US years before her son was born, so her pregnancy was unaffected by the harsh government program, which was in force from 1979 to 2015. But the internalized trauma from growing up in that environment, from events she didn’t even realize she’d absorbed, began to affect her attitude toward her own pregnancy, so she set out to examine the wide-ranging effects of China’s long-term push to gain control of its population size.

One Child Nation begins with Wang’s own story as one of the few Chinese citizens born in the one child era who has a sibling. This was possible because of a loop hole in the policy which allowed some rural families to have a second child as long as they waited 5 years in between. However, before her parents were given permission to try for a second child, her mother was almost forcibly sterilized. Many of the other women in Wang’s family and village were unable to avoid that fate, after being tied up by village officials and kidnapped from their homes.

If Wang’s younger brother had been another girl, her parents and grandparents planned to abandon the baby in the street to die, a common practice throughout China. Indeed, Wang speaks to an aunt and an uncle who each had to abandon a baby girl. The uncle’s daughter died, and he still grieves her, decades later. The aunt’s daughter was taken to an orphanage and ultimately adopted by an American family. The aunt wonders about her ultimate fate, to this day.

These inequalities are discussed at length. In the early days, government midwives were forced to commit frequent infanticide, calling full term births of extra children (mostly girls) they then killed “abortions”. Later, when American adoptions of Chinese baby girls became a lucrative side business for orphanages and anyone who could supply them with cast off infants, the government was less strict about how the unwanted babies were disposed of.

The film examines the effects of forced sterilizations, abortions, infanticides, and other harsh punishments at length, on both the victimized families and the government officials who were tasked with carrying out these procedures. Some of the speakers on both sides are still coming to terms with their experiences, while others have bought into extensive government propaganda. All feel they had no choice at the time. The Chinese government was successful in rendering them helpless to an Orwellian extreme.

The ironic exception to the feelings of helplessness are the “human traffickers”, who collected babies who’d been abandoned on roadsides and in empty public spaces. They took the babies to orphanages so they could eventually be adopted by Westerners. The “human traffickers” were paid by the orphanages for the time and money they put into caring for the abandoned children whose lives they saved. After they were caught, the Chinese government imprisoned many of the “traffickers” for years. On the other hand, midwives who committed thousands of infanticides were celebrated as state heroes.

This is particularly chilling when you remember, once again, how many of the dead babies were girls.

It’s clear that enforcement of the one child policy likely had an impact on everyone in China. Now that it’s been lifted, the propaganda machine encourages families to have exactly two children.

And that’s where my criticism lies. Wang ends the film by drawing a parallel between the one child policy and the US’s abortion laws, an attempt to frame the story as one of excessive control over women’s bodies. While it was certainly misogynist, the one child policy was ultimately about population control, which is a much bigger issue, and it’s not the only one raised by the one child policy.

For one thing, the film shows us how deeply men were affected by China’s policy as well, so it’s reductive to then frame it as a women’s issue. Wang doesn’t even cover the current generations of Chinese men who are scrambling to find wives because the one child policy and the Chinese preference for sons has led to a shortage of women in those age brackets, an issue which is only at the beginning of its cycle.

But also, while China was getting its population size under control in an admittedly draconian way, the overall population on Earth was growing by billions. This is a global issue which we all have to face, because human activity is overwhelming the planet. Wang begins the film with a brief explanation of why the policy was instituted, but doesn’t address why it was ended in 2015. In fact, the one child policy became unnecessary because the birthrate in China dropped as women’s standard of living and level of education rose, just as it has in other countries. Spending a few minutes on the nuances of these changes in Chinese society would have added a hopeful aNanfu Wangnd balanced aspect to the film.

One Child Nation tells a powerful story from the perspective of those most affected by China’s one child policy. Its focus on first person accounts of mothers, daughters and midwives is especially welcome, since women’s own words are so often left out of their stories. But the film would have benefitted from taking one step back and adding a more nuanced analysis of the history of China’s birth rate and the socioeconomic factors which have affected it, especially those which led to the lifting of the one child policy.

Brookings Institute- The End of China’s One Child Policy

Vox.com- How Filmmaker Nanfu Wang Exposed the Global Repercussion of China’s “One Child” Policy (The One Child Nation director talks about the risks of her work and the power of propaganda.)

One Child Nation was released by Amazon Studios and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It was produced and directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. Like Wang, Zhang was born in China under the one child policy. Cinematography by Nanfu Wang and Yuanchen Liu. Edited by Nanfu Wang. Music by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero. The film won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Wang recorded the film in China while risking arrest or other repercussions against herself, her crew or her film subjects.