Nanfu Wang’s documentary investigates the terrible toll taken by China’s decades-long campaign of population control.
By Joe Morgenstern | The Wall Street Journal
Some documentaries achieve distinction through clear-cut cause and effect—they bring recognition to worthy subjects, or cause grief for deserving scoundrels. But what of a film that depicts the almost inconceivable horrors of an event in the past? What effect can it have now? The subject of “One Child Nation” is the draconian campaign of population control that convulsed China between 1979 and 2015 by limiting families to one child. A strong rationale for this devastating—and distinguished—documentary feature comes from one of its most eloquent participants, an artist named Peng Wang. He has used the one-child policy as a recurring theme in his work to help preserve in the national memory an infamous period that is being expunged from the public record. The film does that and more, both as oral history and as exemplary investigative journalism.
“One Child Nation” was directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. Ms. Wang was born in China in 1985, when the nation’s unprecedented social experiment was in full swing. During her childhood she sang songs celebrating the virtues of one-child families as a member of a choir that was, in turn, part of a national campaign involving folk arts, opera, popular culture, mass rallies, ubiquitous posters and incessant propaganda on TV. (She has a brother, thanks to an exception that allowed some rural families like hers to have two children, provided they were born five years apart.)
As an immigrant in the United States, she began to wonder what had actually happened during that period, though only after giving birth to her own child. What she uncovered in return visits to her native land was a mostly unknown history that began with known, desperate need—China could not sustain its soaring population—but was marked by murderous cruelty, boundless cynicism, systematic greed, impenetrable lies and, above all, suffering on a scale seldom if ever equaled in human history.
Ms. Wang’s film is not for the faint of heart, even though its most shattering passages are straight-to-the-camera accounts rather than images; the words of those who lived through the madness, and in some cases perpetrated it, are worth any number of numbing pictures. It’s one thing to understand that enforcing the one-child policy required vast numbers of forced sterilizations and abortions. It’s another thing to hear stories in harrowing detail: of homes demolished because women in them refused to be sterilized; of other women tied up and dragged screaming to local clinics. One midwife—not just any midwife but the one who delivered Ms. Wang—believes she performed between 50,000 and 60,000 sterilizations and abortions in the course of the campaign. Some fetuses, she says, were almost full-term: “Many I induced alive, and killed. My hands trembled while I did it. I was the executioner. The state gave the order but I carried it out. I killed those babies.”
She continues to work, but, in an irony too painful to savor, seeks expiation by limiting her practice to helping couples with fertility problems. By contrast, a former family-planning official, elevated by medals and awards to the status of a national hero, remains unrepentant. “If I could go back in time,” she says, “I would do this work again.” The filmmaker’s mother endorses the wisdom of the government’s response to soaring population and the prospect of widespread famine. “You can’t imagine the poverty,” she tells her daughter on camera. Were it not for the policy “there would have been cannibalism.” For her own part, Ms. Wang acknowledges an apparent irony in her emigrating from a country where abortion was government-mandated to a country where it’s increasingly prohibited, but declines to see the policies as opposites. In both cases, she says, the state is depriving women of choice.
As if its overarching narrative weren’t powerful enough, the film tracks a poisonous cascade of unintended consequences that Orwell could not have envisaged, though Jonathan Swift might have imagined on a more modest scale.
Countless numbers of infants considered illegal were abandoned—put in baskets and left in public places. Of those who survived, many were harvested, in effect, by a national network of scavengers and human traffickers. One cheerful man, now retired, recalls seeing four or five babies a day dying on the streets when he was a kid, and then, as an adult, going into the business of selling them—as many as 10,000 babies in all, he thinks—to state-run orphanages that, the film contends, often falsified records of provenance before re-selling them, at a huge markup, to adoptive parents from abroad. Shocking as it may be, “One Child Nation” needs to be seen. It’s a document that deepens our understanding of the totalitarian state that China was, not that long ago, of the enormity of the inhumanity that the central government visited on its most vulnerable citizens.
This story originally appeared on https://www.wsj.com/