In 1979, China issued what would become known as the “One Child Policy”: In an effort to combat overpopulation and the potential for mass starvation, families were only allowed a single child per household. By 1982, it would become the law of the land. The party line was that it made the nation “prosperous and powerful.” Documentarian Nanfu Wang remembers seeing the put-on-a-happy-face propaganda that trumpeted how it was every citizen’s duty to adhere to this rule on TV shows, posters, playing cards, matchbooks, snack boxes — the message was everywhere you looked. Population control was the name of the game. So was forced sterilization, infanticide and mandated abortions. Punishment was severe if you did not stick to the plan.
Though the law was ended in 2015 — “revised” might be a better word, given that families could now have two kids, but were still given a procreational limit — it had been on Wang’s mind as she prepared to give birth to her first child. So the Chinese-American filmmaker decided to return to her home town, cameras in tow, and talk to family members, neighbors, and others who lived through the repressive policy. This is how One Child Nation initially presents itself, framing the issue through the lens of a first-person documentary — Wang’s own diaristic tour of her past, how her family was allowed an exception (she has a younger brother) and how growing up under the shadow of the strictly enforced law affects her own ideas about motherhood. It quickly blossoms into something much deeper, and much, much darker.
Along with her codirector Jialing Zhang, Wang uses the personal connection to begin tracing a bigger picture of what one person calls China’s “population war against its people.” They talk to a village leader who forced locals to terminate pregnancies, turning a friendly visit into a hostile encounter. They interview a rural doctor who “helped” unwilling participants stay in the government’s good graces; she now treats only infertility cases as a sort of karmic atonement. (The way she insists that Wang and her crew film the many thank-you cards and citations she’s received for helping couples start families is a heartbreaking short story unto itself.) They meet an artist who’s graced Mao’s little red books with pictures of fetuses and documented the numerous “yellow bags” that litter the country. They hear from folks who’ve been arrested for child trafficking — a lucrative business and an epidemic — and a couple in Utah who, after adopting several Chinese girls, have worked tirelessly to locate the thousands of kids who are M.I.A. They inform a young woman that she has a twin somewhere out there in the world.
What eventually emerges is a peerless portrait of collective trauma — a devastating look at how this law not only sociologically gutted a country but made everyone complicit in the crime. “We had no choice” is repeated from interviewees across the board, and a familiar just-following-orders refrain echoes across the entire film. A story of a pregnant woman running down the street to save her unborn child is nightmarish. Images of newspapers carrying endless rows of baby pictures, signaling adoption-ready infants but doubling as a list of the missing, are likely to haunt viewers. Pro-choice groups are likely to single out One Child Nation‘s abortion horror stories, until Wang and Zhang explicitly connect what was happening to a larger global assault against women’s rights…at which point they may pretend to innocently whistle then walk away. Shame pervades.
At one point, One Child Nation includes a clip of a cute young moppet, bald except for a tiny patch of hair above his forehead, singing gleefully yet aggressively about how this is the law, and you better follow it: “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” You’d laugh if you weren’t so chilled. A handful of scenes later, we hear Wang’s brother casually say that if he were born a girl, he’d have been abandoned. It’s this accumulation of stories small and large, personal and communal, that makes this documentary more than a dispassionate dispatch on a part of China’s history. It’s closer to a prosecutor gathering evidence and presenting a comprehensive case to a jury. This is what national guilt looks like.