A War on the People: A Review of One Child Nation
by John Whitehead
To curb population growth and supposedly promote national prosperity, China’s ruling Communist Party in 1979 launched an effort to ensure most Chinese parents would have only one child. For roughly the next 36 years the authorities would enforce this One-Child Policy through measures that included intense propaganda, forced sterilizations and abortions, punishments for disobedient households, and perhaps even kidnapping illicit “extra” children. The documentary One Child Nation illustrates the impact of these draconian measures by telling the stories of an array of people affected by them. Interviewees include officials responsible for upholding the One-Child Policy, parents who abandoned their children or had a child taken away by authorities, and human traffickers who dealt in such children.
Adding to the One Child Nation’s power and poignancy is its focus on how the One-Child Policy affected the family of Nanfu Wang, the documentary’s co-director and narrator. Having been raised in China before moving to the United States, Wang returns to her native country to ask relatives about their experiences of the policy. The stories are sobering. An aunt gave up an infant daughter to human traffickers. An uncle abandoned his baby daughter in a market—no one claimed her, however, and the child died. Her immediate family was comparatively lucky: Wang’s parents benefited from an exception to regulations and were allowed to have a second child after her, as long as they waited five years. (Nevertheless, she remembers being embarrassed by the presence of her younger brother, as her family departed from the national ideal.)
Wang also speaks to locals in her family’s village, with notable stories of their own. A former village official recalls having a family’s house demolished as punishment for not accepting sterilization. A former midwife admits to having carried out sterilizations, abortions, and even infanticides. At a higher governmental level, an important member of China’s family planning apparatus freely acknowledges the practice of forced abortion as part of the One-Child Policy but professes no regrets.
Much of One Child Nation’s final third is devoted to untangling connections between family planning regulations and international Chinese adoptions. Drawing on the work of the group Research-China.org and the journalist Peng Jiaoming, the filmmakers present evidence of state-sponsored human trafficking. In some cases, children who weren’t permitted under the One-Child Policy may have been forcibly taken from their families by government officials and given to orphanages that would then put the children up for adoption under the fiction that they had been abandoned. In effect, some in China may have directly profited from the One-Child Policy by selling children on the global market.
For a consistent-life-ethic advocate, One Child Nation illuminates the many ways injustices and threats to life are connected. A major theme running through the documentary is how the One-Child Policy’s effects were shaped by a widespread preference for sons over daughters. The fact that the children given up by Wang’s aunt and uncle were both daughters is hardly coincidental. Wang’s mother recalls that when she was pregnant with her second child Wang’s grandmother produced a basket in which they could abandon the second child, if it were another girl. Indeed, as the filmmaker wryly notes, her given name, which literally means “man pillar” (as in “pillar of the family”) was chosen for her before birth in the hopes she would be a boy. As these and other details show, the One-Child Policy’s effects weren’t distributed equally but fell especially hard on those already discriminated against: sexism and population control fed each other.
Other connections among threats to life appear in the language used by interviewees. The midwife who killed children before and after birth refers to herself as an “executioner.” This same midwife also notably shares with some executioners and war veterans the characteristic of being haunted by her actions. She explains how she changed her practice to helping men and women struggling with infertility and does other charitable deeds to make up for her enforcement of the One-Child Policy. Meanwhile, the high-ranking family planning official, while apparently not haunted by her actions, justifies them by likening them to killing in war, invoking the oft-used slogan of “fighting a population war.” In her narration, Wang comments that this war on population growth turned into a war by the Chinese regime on its own people.
To be sure, One-Child Nation doesn’t accept the consistent-life-ethic by explicitly recognizing preborn children’s right to life. Toward the end, Wang criticizes American efforts to restrict abortion access, characterizing both such efforts and the One-Child Policy as attempts to limit women’s freedom. Nevertheless, the frequent references to violence and killing in connection to abortion give a very different impression
The documentary’s most remarkable interview is with the artist Peng Wang While exploring garbage dumps, the artist discovered the bodies of aborted children, in bags labeled “medical waste.” He created a series of photographs and paintings of these dead children and even preserved some of the bodies in jars, which he displays during the documentary. These bodies and the resulting artwork convey the humanity of the One-Child Policy’s smallest victims, regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions. Indeed, the children’s remains seem to have made an impression on the filmmakers, as footage of one aborted child is used in the opening credits, significantly intercut with footage of a Chinese military parade. This editing choice memorable illustrates the theme of a “war on the people.”
One Child Nation is valuable for how it gives the injustices of the One-Child Policy human faces. Indeed, some of the documentary’s most affecting moments literally do this, with the camera holding for a long time on someone’s face even while she isn’t speaking, allowing her emotions to play out in real time.
Despite its strengths, One Child Nation has notable limitations.
The focus is almost entirely on personal stories, with minimal historical, political, or social context given. No academics or other specialists in China or demography are interviewed. This makes the full significance of the documentary’s anecdotes harder to understand. We see footage of Wang arguing with her mother about the One-Child Policy, with the mother justifying the policy by invoking China’s past poverty. But is there any basis to this justification? Did the One-Child Policy contribute to China’s more recent economic transformation and relative prosperity? Or were the two largely coincidental? For that matter, was the One-Child Policy even necessary to slow population growth or would birth rates have fallen in China over the past 40 years regardless? The documentary presents little evidence either way.
Also, despite the emphasis on sexism and son-preference, One Child Nation says nothing about one of the policy’s most dramatic effects, the prevalence of sex-selective abortion and China’s resulting massive gender imbalance. Further, while forced abortion is mentioned several times, no women who were subjected to this violence are interviewed (although one scene implies the filmmakers might have been under political pressure not to speak to such women).
A final important omission is that the documentary doesn’t consider how the One-Child Policy relates to the repressive nature of the larger Chinese Communist regime. Wang laments the fatalism of her relatives and other interviewees, who act as if they had no choice but to accept the policy. Yet in a one-party state with limited political freedoms, precisely what does she think her family or other Chinese should have done to resist? Perhaps some means of resistance were open to them, yet the documentary doesn’t elaborate on what they might have been.
These questions aren’t merely academic. The Chinese regime continues to impose its will on the people in draconian ways, as we see today in Xinjiang or Hong Kong—or for that matter in continued population control policies. The One-Child Policy may be gone, but the government continues to set limits on children. Placing the One-Child Policy’s history in the context of a broader analysis of Communist Party rule would be useful to human rights activists in China and elsewhere.
Finally . . .
Despite the omissions, One Child Nation is a powerful expose of one of the great injustices of our time. It deserves to be widely seen, especially by advocates of the consistent life ethic.
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