One Child Nation Is a Haunting Documentary About a Country’s Attempts to Justify the Unjustifiable

The Sundance-winning movie chronicles the legacy of a different kind of family separation policy.

Still from One Child Nation showing a woman carrying a baby and an umbrella near a wall that depicts the motto "One Child Is Best"
Amazon Studios

Could the bureaucrats who dreamed up China’s one-child policy, one of the largest and most extreme social engineering projects of the last century, have foreseen how ruthlessly their plan would be enforced? With the promise of widespread prosperity as the carrot and the threat of mass starvation as the stick, could they afford to care? And even if officials found a way to live with the violence inherent to reversing centuries, if not millennia, of customs and biases, how were hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese people—many of whom participated in or turned a blind eye to infanticide and forced sterilizations within their communities, and even within their families—convinced that such mass cruelty was justifiable?

It’s that last question that most distresses and fascinates Nanfu Wang in One Child Nation, the Sundance-winning documentary she directed with Jialing Zhang. For better and for worse, Wang and Zhang take a fiercely personal approach toward their exposé of the often nightmarish consequences of the one-child policy. Wang, who has lived in the U.S. for the last five years, visits her rural hometown and interviews family members and former neighbors, among many others, to understand how they grew to embrace the program and how they feel about it today. (Implemented in 1979, the policy ended in 2015.)

Later in the film, the filmmakers interview doctors, village leaders, human traffickers, and a husband-and-wife team of American transnational adoption researchers. Wang appears frequently on camera, cradling her baby in her arms—an image that underscores her perspective as a new mother who can’t imagine leaving an infant daughter to die, as her uncle had. (His own mother had threatened to kill herself if he didn’t let the baby girl perish so he could try again for a son.) Best viewed as an oral history of a desperate experiment in a fast-changing, selectively amnesiac country, the film is hardly a comprehensive overview of its subject. But its directness and intimacy lend an indelibility that encyclopedic framing could never approximate. The one-child policy haunts Wang, and she wants it to haunt the viewer, too.

Perhaps it’s the mind-reeling scale of tragedy that led Wang and Zhang to feature so many one-on-one conversations. (The number of China’s “missing women,” due to a strong cultural preference for boys over girls, has been estimated at between 10 million and 50 million.) One physician hazards that she alone performed somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 abortions, forced sterilizations, and killings of infants shortly after labor induction. She has since dedicated her life to redemption, but a colleague refuses to feel guilt: “If it weren’t for the one-child policy, there’d be cannibalism in China.”

Disagreements remain about the program’s urgency, and it’s on this point that the film’s narrow moral stance most underserves its credibility. (The administrators in charge of population control probably intended their brainchild as a necessary evil, not a sadistic caprice.) Wang and Zhang don’t interview any survivors of such violence, and in one scene, some villagers refuse to help Wang contact any—warning that the filmmaker’s search will blow back on her mother. But maybe we don’t need to see women revisit some of the worst traumas of their lives. The pictures of babies and fetuses in dumpsters, accompanied by descriptions of other infants abandoned on the side of the road or infested with maggots in the markets, say plenty.

Wang’s other primary lens is that of an émigré who questions which of the beliefs she held as a youngster in China were her own and which were those of the state. (Given the high levels of censorship in her native country, it’s impossible not to wonder whether she’ll be able to return after the release of this film.) As with her previous documentary, Hooligan Sparrow, which profiled anti-rape activist Ye Haiyan, the filmmaker wonders where the moral outrage such atrocities clearly demand could be hiding. Her indignation could easily slide into self-righteousness, were it not for the directors’ keen interest in how most of the citizenry—including Wang’s own mother—evades any sense of culpability or complicity. The archival footage of marches in lockstep and local propaganda performances might feel exoticizing through an outsider’s camera, but for Wang they serve as interrogation of her own childhood.

Still, the directors assume too much knowledge on the part of viewers. It does feel relevant that China’s populace nearly doubled between 1949 and 1976, and that the ’70s, in particular, were in the grip of global Malthusian anxieties about overpopulation, especially in developing nations. Also unmentioned by the doc is the fact that for many years during the one-child policy’s duration, half of all Chinese parents were, like Wang’s own, allowed a second child. It’s not that One Child Nation needs to cater to both sides of the argument, but it would have helped contextualize how often the acts of violence the film chronicles actually happened. That becomes even more the case as the film focuses in its latter half on the kidnapping of children, either as enforcement of the program or punishment for flouting it. At least some of those children were then taken to orphanages catering to transnational adoptions, where, as the film alleges, adoption fees were rerouted to the government.

The larger portrait that One Child Nation paints is that of a country where, to get by, everyone had to commit or at the very least stay quiet about acts of barbarity. From top officials to the lowliest family member, too many were forced to see some of the most vulnerable members of society as problems first and people second. As the family separation crisis reminds us, it’s a tendency that’s not unique to any group or nation. But it’s also not a viewpoint we ever have to accept.