One Child Nation review: A personal exploration of how China's infamous policy gained currency, its emotional toll
One Child Nation succeeds on two counts: It looks at the human cost of the one-child policy while portraying how the wounds resulting from it have barely healed, even as the Chinese government has moved on to a new kind of messaging — that of how two children are better than one, since the country has a shortage of young people now
While watching Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation, it’s tough not to be disturbed by the juxtaposition of the past and present. Here is Wang unraveling the horrors and wide-spread impact of China’s one-child policy – babies aborted at nine months, thrown into garbage heaps, abandoned at markets – and there is the visual of her own child, peacefully asleep and gurgling.
This juxtaposition is at its most powerful at the end of the film; Wang’s grandfather, who has lived through the time before the policy was implemented and through it, gapes at a television screen, as women sing in praise of having two children. Nearly 40 years after the policy was implemented, China now faces a shortage of young citizens.
Wang and Zhang’s documentary succeeds on two counts: It looks at the human cost of the one-child policy while portraying how the wounds resulting from it have barely healed, even as the Chinese government has moved on to a new kind of messaging.
Wang’s personal connection to the story cements this; her family, desirous of a male child, had a son five years after she was born, which caused people in the city to discriminate against her. Her father had to talk the village chief out of sterilising her mother. A child of her uncle’s was left at a market when she was mere days old; the baby of an aunt was “sold” to traffickers, who could arrange for her to be adopted. If you lived through the period between 1979 to 2015 in China, it was likely that your own life or that of someone you knew was marred by the policy.
The visuals of the propaganda that people were witness to every single day of their lives is chilling to say the least. On walls, matchboxes, songs taught at schools, lunchboxes, programmes on the television – there wasn’t any medium where the virtues of having one child weren’t extolled. In one village, a man admitted to writing dramatic performances about the policy and its benefits.
What’s more chilling is the swift and effectual way in which the policy was implemented. From individuals in authority positions in the government to local village heads, people unsurprisingly put the policy above all else. Many are also cold about the whole affair (‘Policy is policy’). Houses where more than one child was born were ravaged. Abortions, foeticide, sterilisation and mandatory contraception were par for the course, and the documentary features many stories about traumatised mothers who were unwilling to undergo these procedures. Parents who had only one child were awarded a sum of money and given “glory” certificates.
It is said that 108 million women were sterilised and that 400 million births were prevented (government figures), but it may never be possible to calculate how many lives were lost.
One Child Nation’s most humane moment is when a mid-wife confesses to Wang that she now helps infertile couples to conceive because of the sheer number of sterilisations and abortions she conducted; she says this is her way of "atoning for her sins".
But this mid-wife is the exception; the reigning sentiment seems to be that people felt helpless because of how strict the policy was, or that it was necessary owing to increasing starvation and poverty, to save the Chinese economy.
The documentary also lays bare how the policy, combined with the preference for a male child, was a double-edged sword. Families would abandon girl children or even kill the babies themselves. The discrimination took on subtler forms as well; Nanfu’s is a male name (her family thought she’d be born a boy) and one of her cousin’s names translates to “will be followed by a brother”.
Wang also examines the role of family planning officials and traffickers in picking up babies (many were girls) abandoned by families and “selling” them to orphanages, where they would be adopted by parents in the West. After having watched the film, one wonders if this was one of the more compassionate ways to deal with the situation.
Though many of these children would go on to live lives outside of China, it cleaved their birth families, and especially affected their siblings, many of whom fervently wish they could meet and interact with their siblings. Some of these separated siblings are twins. The children who were adopted, in many cases, do not wish to speak to their birth families. One girl wonders why her birth parents gave her up. Amid confusion and hurt feelings is the very real possibility that they may never be able to trace their families, because the people who deposited the babies often fudged details about where they were found to ensure the paperwork was not suspect (babies were often picked up from the same few locations).
One Child Nation is far from being an easy watch, and it keeps prompting one to ask the question, ‘How did people do this or let this happen?’ “I came to the understanding that it [support for the policy] was really because of decades of indoctrination that often even changed the people’s sense of right and wrong. They were taught that the policy was for the greater good… So [the message was that] anybody who disobeyed the policy was being selfish and illegal, and even, to some extent, not a good human being,” Wang said in an interview to Vox. She has a vital realisation in the film – that when people are stripped of the right to take a decision, they can absolve themselves of the responsibility of that decision.
The Assam Cabinet has now decided that those with more than two children will not be eligible for government jobs. This decision comes nearly three months after the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech, where he said that having a small family is an act of “patriotism”. Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s film will only gain in relevance, should the wheels of Indian policy begin to turn in the same direction as China’s.
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