Nanfu Wang ('Hooligan Sparrow', 'I Am Another You') and Jialing Zhang's documentary 'One Child Nation' looks back at the Chinese Communist Party's social experiment of one child per family - an attempt to boost the standard of living by artificially restricting the country's rapidly rising population. Using archival and new materials, the film examines the history and human consequences - some of which were horrific - from 1979 until its modification in 2015.
For decades the policy was strictly enforced, especially in urban areas. The government was fighting what they described as a "population war." Those who resisted were dealt with in excruciatingly brutal ways. In the first few years, families caught with more than one child paid extremely high fines, had property confiscated, or had their homes literally demolished by the Communist Party's village and provincial officials. Some women were subjected to forced abortions and sterilisations. The party also dispersed an army of "family planners" to ensure the policy was properly enforced. Parents, meanwhile, in this patriarchal society, would abandon female babies on the side of the road so they could replace them with, they hoped, a boy.
The story of this appalling program took an even more sinister turn in 1992 when the Communist Party allowed international adoptions to take place. What followed was rampant corruption and a thriving black market for Chinese babies. In short, at least 130,000 Chinese children (perhaps millions, according to some experts) were taken from their birth parents and sold to state-run orphanages.
The orphanages then "sold" these children to American families, filling the pockets of Communist Party officials and their cronies who aided the process. Even more reprehensible, the orphanages often lied to the adoptive parents, telling them the child they were adopting was "abandoned". In reality, the Communist Party was shamefully running an international baby-selling scheme.
As 'One Child Nation' shows, thousands of Chinese families to this day have no idea where their children ended up. An international database has been created to attempt to reconnect some of these children with their birth parents. This process, however, has only successfully reconnected a handful of these children with their families in China.
China-born, United States-based Wang narrates the film. After she becomes a mother, we follow her as she returns to the small farming village in Jiangxi Province where she was born in 1985. Her parents named her "Wang Nanfu" as "Nan" means man, and "Fu" means pillar, hoping that the girl would grow up strong like a man.
Wang's family was granted an exception to have a second child because they lived in a rural area, their first child was a daughter, and the children were born more than five years apart. Wang and Zhang speak with various families, village leaders, "family planning" professionals, and those who helped to create and spread propaganda on behalf of the "austerity measures". A picture of trauma, tragedy and misogyny emerges.
Wang speaks brilliantly on the inherent sexism at the heart of such a law and underlines that not everything has progressed for the better, or in some cases, at all.
Wang's mother describes how government agents intended to sterilise her after Wang was born. Luckier than many, she avoided that fate. Wang's uncle recalls abandoning his daughter at a market so that he and his wife could try for a boy - the little girl died. An aunt remembers giving her daughter to a human trafficker and Wang wonders about this cousin she's never known.
Hong Kong-based journalist Jiaoming Pang discusses kidnapped children, traffickers, international adoptions and corrupt orphanages. Wang interviews a pair of separated twins living in different parts of the world. We meet a midwife who says she conducted between 50,000 and 60,000 sterilisations and abortions in 35 years, some involving women who were eight or nine months pregnant. An artist describes finding a fetus in a plastic bag, which he photographed and later depicted in his art.
'One Child Nation' also illustrates the effectiveness of propaganda - in murals, on posters and in folk art performances. Pregnancy is often depicted as being the "fault" of a woman, and never of the man, with most sterilisation efforts aimed at females and never males.
Wang speaks brilliantly on the inherent sexism at the heart of such a law and underlines that not everything has progressed for the better, or in some cases, at all. She offers pointed commentary throughout the film, as when she compares the Chinese government - which has forced abortions on women - to the U.S. government, which is making abortion increasingly inaccessible. Both are exerting control over female bodies, she notes.
As a personal journey, an investigative exposé and a warning, 'One Child Nation' is an informative, affecting and important film that documents a dark chapter of Chinese history that shouldn't be forgotten.