I was not ready for this.
Sitting down in the cosy Academy cinema on a Friday afternoon to watch One Child Nation, a documentary about China’s infamous one-child policy, the woman next to me struck up a conversation. I admitted that I had considered not attending the film, because it didn’t particularly grab my attention. However, I realised I’d always heard about China’s one-child policy, but knew essentially nothing about it. I told her that my level of knowledge was simply that the policy exists and that it had some unfortunate consequences. Turns out saying it had “some unfortunate consequences” is possibly the biggest understatement to ever escape my lips. If a documentary intends to educate, One Child Nation taught me that China’s one-child policy was akin to a self-inflicted holocaust – and I do not use those words lightly.
Directed by Chinese-born, US-based Nanfu Wang, and Jialing Zhang, it is Wang who is most prominently a part of the film, acting as narrator and interviewer. She spent the first 27 years of her life in China, but relocated to the states as an adult. She recently had her first child, which got her thinking about the one-child policy and how it affected those around her. She begins by asking here parents, who named her Nanfu before she was born, about it. Nanfu translates to “Man” or “Pillar”, meaning her parents were desperately hoping for a son to build the family around. Sons are far more valuable than daughters, who will inevitably just get married off to another family. When she was born a girl, they decided to name her Nanfu anyway, hoping she would develop to be strong, like a man. It’s the first example we get of the pervasive way the one-child policy has shaped the culture and the minds of the people of China, but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg.
We spend the first part of the film getting a general introduction to the policy. In 1979, China was facing a population crisis and experts were predicting the complete collapse of the country. Something had to be done. The one-child policy was that something. It was in operation for 30 years, finally coming to a stop in 2015. It was hailed by the Chinese government as a wild success and the reason for the country’s current prosperity.
So far, nothing too outrageous.
Then One Child Nation quickly starts to deliver some eyebrow raising facts, followed by literally jaw dropping and stomach-churning interviews. Stories of abortions and sterilizations – voluntary and otherwise. We meet an old village chief who talks about how some women would try to run, so they had to chase them down and “force” the sterilizations on them. He felt that was too much, so he didn’t get involved. He just watched. Then we meet the 84-year-old midwife. She has no idea how many babies she delivered through her career. But she is keenly aware of the number of sterilizations and abortions. Between 50,000–60,000. Sometimes 20 a day. Many at eight or nine months. Sometimes she would induce the birth, then kill the child. Another woman almost proudly claims that the policy prevented over 300 million births.
But the horror doesn’t stop there. More numbers come at you. More horrific stories. Nanfu Wang learns about her aunts and uncles having to abandon babies. Her younger brother (some rural families could have two children, if they were at least five years apart) has since learned that if he had been born a girl, he would’ve been left in a basket on the street.
This film brings to mind two things. First, the infamous Milgram Shock Experiments, which demonstrated humanity’s ability to commit horrific acts if the blame could be placed in the hands of an authority figure. Second, the horrific documentary The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer, which features interviews with the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66. The men in that film proudly describe their acts of horrific violence. In One Child Nation, however, no one seems proud of what they’ve done, but nearly all of them say the same thing; “It was the policy. I had no choice.” All except the 84-year-old midwife, who “retired” from abortions 27 years ago and now devotes herself to helping infertile couples conceive. She has rooms of mementos sent to her from thankful parents, but no illusions about what she has done. Yes, it was the policy, but it was still her that killed all those babies. Her honesty is disturbing, yet refreshing, for lack of a better word.
The rest of the people featured in interviews, however, are the victims of decades of constant and unerring propaganda, so pervasive that I’m sure it’s effectively inescapable. There are billboards and slogans painted everywhere. The government organized touring operas and dances promoting it. They created children’s songs. To most of the citizens there, they simply believed that is was necessary, as horrific as it may have been. I got the impression that this attitude is as much a result of the self-preservation instinct as it is the propaganda. It’s psychologically much easier to deflect the blame on the policy, rather than truly face what you’ve done. One Child Nation is one of the most powerful and shocking films I’ve ever seen, and continues the documentary tradition that truth is often much stranger, and more horrific, than fiction.