China’s one child policy, implemented from 1979 to 2015, is something most Westerners are aware of but don’t really know many details about – they probably know it lead to a massive population decline, and that a cultural preference for boys led to a huge gender imbalance in the following generations, but that’s about it. Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation is a brutally personal investigation into the policy, examining the fallout of a nationwide strategy estimated to have stopped more than 300 million births and left China with an ageing, unstable population, told from the perspective of those who lived under it.
While co-directed by Wang and Zhang, the documentary is framed as Wang’s personal journey of discovery – as after the birth of her own son in the US, she begins to question the one-child policy that she was born under. Like most people, Wang took her childhood for granted and never questioned or considered the implications of the one-child policy – she assumed she knew all the details. But, at the beginning of the film, as she visits her home village with her son, it quickly becomes apparent that she was unaware of its casual brutality.
The first few interview subjects are a middle-aged woman and an elderly man, introduced as “my mom” and “my grandpa” – Wang’s mother speaks bluntly of the forced sterilisation that she narrowly avoided after Wang’s birth, and the bamboo basket that was left in the kitchen by Wang’s grandmother in case her second child was a girl and had to be abandoned, since no family could possibly want two girls. The story then expands from local characters – including the village chief, who organised teams of men to violently implement the one-child policy and the local midwife, who delivered Wang and performed tens of thousands of abortions and sterilisations – to cover the wider consequences of the policy, particularly the human trafficking and adoption trade.
The film’s biggest strength is making an enormous, nationwide policy – affecting over a billion people – feel personal. Stories that Wang once considered distant and horrifying – the abandoning of babies in the local market, or their sale to human traffickers – become painfully personal as she discovers the fate of cousins she never knew she had. Wang acts as a grounding presence: visible operating the camera in reflective surfaces and often holding her infant son during interviews, especially when with her family members. Her family photos get mixed in with archival footage, propaganda and protest art in building a history of the policy felt on both a national and personal scale. The interviews, particularly the early ones with family and people who have known Wang all her life, are blunt and unfiltered in a way discussion of government policy rarely is. The scope of the film is massive, but at the same time, Wang and Zhang barely go beyond two provinces.
The misogyny of the policy is also laid bare – in almost all cases, women were the victims of the one-child policy, undergoing forced sterilisation and being disproportionately abandoned or sold to human traffickers. But as well as being the victims, women were also often the perpetrators of violence and corruption – midwives and female doctors were celebrated during the years of the policy, and female human traffickers were as common as their male counterparts. Jaunty propaganda operas and songs promoting the one-child policy were performed by women, and almost all women that Wang interviews express some support for the policy – her own mother insists there would have been cannibalism in China without the one-child policy. Cultural misogyny is commonplace – Wang’s first name, Nanfu, means Man Pillar, and was chosen before she was born, in her parents’ hope of having a boy to literally be the pillar of the family. In one off-the-cuff scene, Wang’s grandfather protests that, since she is female, her children are “less” his great-grandchildren than Wang’s brother’s children are. Wang’s younger brother, Zhihao, is keenly aware of the fact that, had he been born female, he would not be alive. Part of a new generation, Zhihao is far more uncomfortable with the cultural misogyny than other male family members, and points out the key problem with Chinese attitudes towards gender – both male and female relatives want sons, not daughters.
Throughout the interviews with family members, doctors and human traffickers, one sentiment is repeated above all – there was nothing we could do to stop this. A disturbing refrain of “following orders” emerges, the inevitability of government policy under communist rule. Yet the internal corruption – especially once China began allowing international adoption in 1992, and child trafficking to orphanages increased – raise the question of how much was really done to counter the policy. Wang begins the film believing she knows all about the policy, but the amount that was withheld speak to not only the cultural suppression of information, but the familial suppression, and the way that parents shielded their children from the babies left on meat counters and cousins they would never know. The older generation lived through this trauma and now want a better life for their children and grandchildren.
The one-child policy was replaced in 2015 by a two-child policy, and the film ends by showing various new propaganda campaigns for the new policy, leaving the audience to wonder what lengths the Chinese government will go to to enforce the new idea that “one is too few, two is just right.” Wang and her son stand in front of the slogans, giving a final reminder of the personal stakes of the political policy.
One Child Nation will be playing on Fri 7 June and at a sold out session on Sun 9 June 2019 as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
 As a rural family, they were allowed two children, but the second had to be born five years after the first.  Female human traffickers also received comparatively much longer sentences.
Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. For an endless barrage of unwanted opinions, check out @tansyclipboard