One Child, Many Stories: Review of One Child Nation, directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, 2019

How do you portray a critical social issue in China to a global audience? One way is to tell a compelling story. One Child Nation has done exactly that. The documentary is a serious look into the human tragedy of China’s one-child policy from the perspectives of people implementing, witnessing, and suffering from it.

The One-Child Policy, central to China’s birth control regime from the late 1970s until its abolition in 2016, was a response to what the Chinese government considered a population crisis. The government used a combination of propaganda, material incentives, and coercion (including forced sterilization and abortion, fines, and even house demolition) to enforce the policy. Characterized by the government as a “population war,” it was every bit as brutal as an actual war but one levelled against a civilian population.

Filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who is herself part of the one-child generation, and who recently gave birth to a daughter of her own in the United States, returned to her rural home in China. She spoke to many people, including her mother, her aunt, the midwife who delivered her and also performed countless abortions, the village head who implemented the one-child policy when Wang was young, a Chinese journalist who tried to expose the truth, and an artist who expressed the tragedy in paintings. 

In a poignant scene, the midwife confesses that she aborted more than 50,000 fetuses.  She induced many late-term fetuses and then killed them, actions she so regretted that now she offers fertility services to women. But the retired village head, although sharing some misgivings about the policy, refuses to denounce it. His family threatened the filmmaker not to speak to women forced to terminate their pregnancies. In addition to abortion, the deeply entrenched traditional attitudes of favoring boys over girls led many families to kill or leave their female babies in in the village field, hoping that someone would take them be adopted. In fact, many of the babies died, and the families were able to try for a male baby.

The film also exposes the corruption of local officials who collected exorbitant fines and the money-making scheme of state-run orphanages that bought babies from officials who confiscated the babies and criminal gangs who picked up babies left in fields, and then falsified records for foreign adoption, including many to the United States. A young girl whose sister was taken away by family planning officials and adopted by a U.S. family describes the heartbreak of not knowing where her sibling is. Her story is one of many.

The story-telling is a multifaceted, moving, and at times enraging saga of the worst of authoritarian state power joined to the worst of patriarchy.

Still, might there be another way to tell this story? If the goal is moral outrage over the policy, most viewers don’t need to be convinced. The policy has been harshly criticized in the United States since the 1980s and 1990s. What else can a documentary like this convey?

One way is to purposefully complicate the story. After all, the policy – like the Chinese government – is not monolithic. In the countryside, where some 43% of the 1.4 billion-person population lives, families were allowed to have a second child if the first child was female. The policy is also imposed only on the Han majority, which makes up about 91% of the population, not on ethnic minorities, who were allowed to have two children. The policy was implemented differently in different regions and over different periods. Such variation happens to policies all the time due to very different local conditions and is integral to policy implementation in China. 

The policy was not universally accepted in China. The narrator makes a passing remark that people in China did not question it. This is itself questionable. In fact, most people interviewed in the documentary either show regret for what they did or despair at not having been able to oppose a state policy. There was resistance from the start, including the individual strategy of taking out inserted birth control devices or the more collective strategy of sabotaging family planning work and officials. From time to time, protests by villages would break out against the policy. In China, the policy was studied, debated, criticized, and widely believed to be unnecessary by the 2000s. 

In fact, the birthrate was already dropping in the early 1970s, prior to the one-child policy. What, then, motivated the government to still pursue it? It was partly justified by so-called neo-Malthusian population science and ideology; namely, a belief that the problem of poverty and economic development is that there are too many people. In the West, this was known as the Zero Population Growth movement, and dire warnings about overpopulation were high in the 1960s-70s. With fewer people, economic development would be more rapid and require fewer people. In China’s transition from a planned to a market economy, Deng Xiaoping and other post-Mao leaders tried to find a way to increase the per-capita economic growth rate. This has taken place in other places like India where a state-forced sterilization campaign started in the 1970s with international loans from the World Bank and the United Nations. The ideology still shapes popular debate today, with overpopulation being cited as the cause of poverty and the climate crisis, not the political economic system that produced unequal incomes and access to resources and pollution.

Paradoxically, the policy also resulted in outcomes that could be seen as progressive, such as improved educational opportunities and greater gender equality for girls, especially urban daughters. This is because parents had more resources to spend on their only child, thereby to some degree equalizing access to education among males and females. Do these outcomes justify the policy? No. The coercion cannot at all be justified. Greater gender equality can be achieved in other ways. Experience in other countries that have moved from agricultural to industrial economies is that female empowerment and economic development lead to fewer children. Most important, as the filmmaker observes, in China, abortion is forced upon many mothers and in the United States it is restricted, but both approaches are about control over women’s choices about their bodies.  

In recent years, China gradually loosened the policy and now finally has moved to a two-child policy for all families. So, what’s next? The end of the policy has failed to spur a spike in birthrate, with the population growing at 0.38 percent in 2018, the slowest since the 1960s and comparable to Western European countries. Many urban families simply do not want more children. Often the economic costs of childrearing and workplace discrimination against women for taking maternity leave are constraining women’s and families’ choices. The next frontier of contestation for families is therefore not so much the coercive power of the state but gender discrimination in the workplace within capitalism.

It remains to be seen whether the two-child policy will avert China’s demographic crisis in which the working-age population declines, families’ age-care responsibilities increase, and there is a potential debt crisis for China’s pension funds. The results of the policy have also led to one of the most skewed gender imbalances in the world, so that many young Chinese men will never marry, while women are under intense pressure to do soThese questions may be too complex for an 89-minute documentary to tackle. However, in rightly highlighting this outrageous policy, the film might have inadvertently reinforced a simplistic image of China as a totalitarian society where the politics and society are monolithic and senseless, and human agency for questioning and resisting rarely exist. On the contrary, mass protests in rural and urban China, against employers, against companies, and against government officials occur daily. The heroic effort of two Chinese activists, who tracked protests in China closely, documented more than 70,000 cases between 2014 and 2016, before they were arrested and sentenced. 

All this is not to disregard the harsh reality of authoritarian state rule and repression against dissent, which I know only too well from my own focus on China’s labor movement and the repression against workers and activists. However, at a time of escalating U.S.-China tensions, we need a more nuanced perspective on China. Progressives here and elsewhere should never justify illegitimate state actions, but they need to better analyze the dynamics of state-society relations in China, avoid seeing China as monolithic entity, recognize the possibilities within Chinese society to oppose both state repression and capitalist exploitation, and find ways to show solidarity to progressive social movements in China.

This post originally appeared in Democratic Left on September 20, 2020.