Film & Television

One Child Nation, a Powerful, Personal View of China’s Extreme Policy 

Living in a comfortable suburb of Boston, my husband and I know several families with adopted Chinese daughters. Aware of China’s one-child policy and the country’s preference for boys, we — like most Americans, I assume — never questioned exactly how these lovely and accomplished young women got here. In my imagination, the birth family, disappointed that their newborn was a girl, brought her to an orphanage and signed away their parentage. She would be adopted by a loving Western family; they would be free to try again for a coveted son. All ended well.

Award-winning filmmaker Nanfu Wang, born in China in 1985 during the height of the policy, didn’t question it either until she became a mother herself. A resident of the United States now, she returned with her infant son to introduce him to her family and to learn more about her own history.

Wang had filmed in China before, while she was finishing her graduate studies at NYU Film. That project, producing the acclaimed documentary Hooligan Sparrow, involved chronicling the work of human rights activist Ye Haiyan. While shooting, Wang was harassed by government officials and secret police. After the film was shortlisted for the 2017 Best Documentary Academy Award, Wang’s family received threatening phone calls.

In returning, Wang was aware that she might face resistance and actual danger as she uncovered the truth about China’s one-child policy — 35 brutal years of the country’s history that it now seems determined to forget.

The one-child law began in 1979 as an effort to stem China’s population growth and impending famine. It was implemented with militaristic precision — in fact, it was often referred to as a means to win the “population war.” Policy was determined at the highest levels of the Party. Local officials were ordered to carry it out, tracking down and punishing families that didn’t comply. An army of midwives and health workers performed forced sterilizations and abortions, many so late-term that babies were born alive and then murdered. Meanwhile, an elaborate propaganda machine created posters, slogans, commercials, and theatrical events that extolled the benefits of single child families. “Better to shed a river of blood than to birth more than one child,” read one painted sign.

The official policy lasted until 2015, when (in a move that frankly feels Orwellian) the Chinese government decreed that two children was now the right number. As the one-child generation matures, China has found itself with a shortage of workers for its thriving economy, and a shortage of women for the disproportionate number of men the policy produced. There is also fear that there won’t be enough sons and daughters to care for aging parents. Today’s propaganda includes messages like, “Two children are great. Like migratory geese, they return home every year.”

Wang begins in her own rural village in Jiangxi Province. (Concerned after her frightening experience with officials shooting Hooligan Sparrow, she brought along colleague Jialing Zhang, who served as a sort of bodyguard as well as co-director.) As she interviews family members, Wang’s young son is often in the frame, a constant reminder that the matter-of-fact stories being told are not hypothetical, but real memories of flesh and blood babies. Wang’s parents were given permission to have a second child because they lived in a remote, rural area. This was not an unusual dispensation for families in their circumstances, but they were mandated to wait five years. Even as she cradles her new grandchild, Wang’s mother explains that had the little brother been born a little sister, the infant would have been left in a basket by the side of the road. Her own uncle left a baby girl in a basket in a public market with money pinned to her. She died there two days later. In a casual conversation, Wang’s grandfather and other village elders confirm the value of male children despite Wang’s best efforts to persuade them otherwise.

As a young student, Wang felt fortunate to have a sibling, but also self-conscious when her classmates learned about it. Eventually, she had to leave school to help support the family so that her brother could continue his studies. (Her eventual journey from vocational school to teaching to learning English, receiving a fellowship from Shanghai University, studying communications at Ohio University, and obtaining a Master’s degree in journalism and documentary film from NYU would make a fascinating movie in its own right.)

Wang meets with others in her native village, like the local official who supervised the demolition of homes when a family disobeyed the law. At first, he is easygoing and speaks freely, but as she probes deeper, his wife jumps in threatening her mother if Wang gets the man into trouble.


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