One Child Nation (2019)

| December 9, 2019

It is never expressly stated but I have reason to think that the documentary One Child Nation could be a subtext for America’s divided attitudes about abortion.  Yes, of course, this is an in-depth look into China’s one-child policy that lasted from 1979 to 2015, about how it was sold and how it was implemented – often by force.  But something under the subject matter got me thinking, first as an American and more importantly as a citizen of the state of Alabama wherein the state just put a painfully mean-spirited logic-free bill into action that not only banned all abortions in the state but imposed century-long penalties for doctors who participate in them.  My question: are we so far apart in our hypocrisy?

To the actual content of One Child Nation, my hometown concerns seem somewhat superfluous, but to the deeper issue, it is something to consider.  By allowing such political sanctions as Alabama’s Human Life Protection Act, are we setting ourselves up for a similar set of bizarre circumstances that China once held aloft in the name of national survival?

Until the early 1990s, the One-Child Policy was largely unknown in the United States, but in China it was imposed by a massive propaganda campaign and also by force.  We learn throughout the films that parents who had more than one child were ostracized and women who refused the sterilization process were pushed into it by force.

The film was produced, directed and narrated by Nanfu Wang, a native of China who later moved to the United States but has come back to her native country to interview activists, relatives, abortionists, journalists and the children born during the time.  She begins with some bizarre propaganda efforts sanctioned by Mao’s government that helped to turn the one-child policy into a massive PR effort, turning it not just into a PSA stunt but also into an effort of national responsibility.  Ads reminded citizens that the policy was not only the law but was, one talking head recalls, helping to stave off a famine that could lead to cannibalism.  That stuff we know, but what makes the movie so effective is Wang’s probe of the actual process of administering the policy under the law . . . and this is where things get ugly.

Speaking with individuals who were part of the medical staff, Wang uncovers a stomach-turning series of eye-witnesses whose job is was to administer the sterilization process, and they were ruthless.  One woman speaks of performing thousands of late-term abortions, many from women whom where brought in kicking and screaming.  Wang doesn’t shy away from the images, the testimonies, the details. 

Since Wang and her crew got these interviews in secret, most of the interviewees are ordinary people who got caught up in the program, some of whom are horrified by what happened and other who understood why it was being imposed.

And THAT is what makes the film so challenging.  Most documentaries of this type, even good ones are simply preaching to the choir.  But this one is different.  In offering up witnesses who were there, a thought emerges that China’s one-child policy wasn’t simply a case of national survival.  The government didn’t put this sanction into action for the purpose of putting a yolk on the people but rather did so to prevent an oncoming plague of overcrowding and famine.  No one would blame you if you went into this movie with the thought that the one-child policy is insane and thoughtless but ask yourself what alternatives China had.

Do I agree with this?  Certainly not.  it is horrific to think of thousands of women having their wombs invaded by a government sanctioned sterilization program.  But I am forced to concede that the larger reason wasn’t in the name of totalitarian rule.  There are issues to consider here that open up debate over how this could have been handled better.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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