The term “good Germans” is never mentioned in the documentary “One Child Nation,” but it certainly comes to mind.
One by one, almost as if rehearsed, interviewees tell director/interviewer Nanfu Wang the same thing: Why did you forcefully sterilize thousands of young women in your village? “I had no choice.” Why did you abandon your child? “I had no choice.” Why did you sell your child to human traffickers? “I had no choice.”
They all had a choice, of course, despite what they say. They could have resisted the government, but they likely would have been imprisoned or killed. Complying with China’s one-child policy, which was in place from 1979 to 2015, seemed like the easier option.
Under the policy, women were sterilized, full-term babies were aborted, some children were sold to human traffickers, and others were snatched from their families and sent to “orphanages” who sold them to American adoptive parents at a premium. Through it all, millions of citizens just went along with it.
“We didn’t make decisions,” a midwife who committed over 60,000 government-required abortions and sterilizations tells Wang. “We only executed orders.”
But the choice to obey the government blindly did not come without consequences, as Wang’s documentary points out. The midwife is still haunted by the babies she’s killed. Parents wonder what became of the children they abandoned.
In the film’s most poignant interview, a sixteen-year-old recalls how her twin sister was wrested away from her and adopted out to America in order to comply with the national policy. Wang herself learns that she has a cousin she never knew who was given up for adoption in order to comply with the policy.
‘It was necessary,’ we’re told repeatedly. Wang’s own mother tells her that China, which was severely overpopulated in the late 1970s, may have had to turn to cannibalism if the population had continued to grow. But, necessary or not, the experience left scars on everyone touched by it, including Wang. The fact that the country has now switched to a two-child policy – there weren’t enough young people to care for the elderly- doesn’t really help matters.
What does help, at least a little bit, are the efforts of Brian and Longlang Stuy’s nonprofit Research China, which works to connect adopted children with their birth parents in the mainland. It’s hard, tedious and important work that Wang rightly praises.
Wang does a lot of right things in “One Child Nation.” Consider, for example, the sheer variety of interview subjects she talks to- from journalists to abortionists to human traffickers to her own family. She asks them all insightful questions and gets to the heart of how the national policy impacted each one on a deep, personal level.
Wang also smartly contrasts those heartbreakingly emotional interviews with the Chinese government’s propaganda about the program, which painted an unrealistically sunny picture. At one point, she expresses the fear that, one day, the propaganda will be all that remains of the program.
“The most tragic thing for a nation is to have no memory,” an interviewee tells Wang.
But, thanks to Wang’s efforts, people will remember, and “One Child Nation” (rated R for disturbing content/images and brief language) will stand as a monument to the very real human impact of the policy.
As a film, it is painful and difficult. As history and journalism, it is essential.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.