During this time of year when most streaming services are pushing cozy Christmas movies, Amazon Prime released a less heartwarming, more substantial documentary on China’s one child policy, aptly named One Child Nation. I recently watched the movie, and while the topic is saddening and disturbing, it delves into the story of the policy and its effects on the people it has influenced the most. It is not an easy film to watch, but it explains the policy most of us have heard of before, but not thought about the implementation or the effect on Chinese society it had and still has today.
China’s policy stated that beginning in 1979, each family was permitted to have one child. Enforcing such a strict, controlling policy was not easy. When women refused to follow the law, the consequences were harsh: homes were destroyed, women were kidnapped and forced to have abortions, many in the third trimester, and forced sterilizations often left women traumatized. Women would run from the operation table naked, trying to escape the pain and torture the government was forcing. Huaru Yuan, a former midwife, testified that “In those days, women were abducted by government officials, tied up, and dragged to [them] like pigs” (One Child Nation-1). The policy was a painful part of Chinese culture for more than 30 years, from which the citizens could not escape. At every turn, murals, public performances, choir recitals, and artwork all demonstrated and reinforced the benefits of this pillar of the Communist party.
Nanfu Wang was born in 1985 in China and moved to the United States as an adult. In the film, she takes us through her home, Wang Village in the Jiangxi Province, interviewing her family members and those officials who implemented the policy. She should have been the only child in her family, but because they lived in a rural area, her parents were allotted another child. This was allowed, as long as the two children were at least five years apart. Nanfu was ashamed of her younger brother, Zhihao Wang, “but now [she feels] lucky [she] had someone to grow up with,” which speaks to the influence of the Communist party and the dominance of the state over individual desires.
The Village and Family Planning Officials were tasked with carrying out and enforcing the policy. One official explained that “[they would] convince them using propaganda,” blatantly throughout the villages. One of the primary ways the government convinced its people to live by such strict rules was by instilling an overwhelming emphasis on the country rather than the individual. By making it a national crisis with the “war on population,” people were more willing to obey, enforce, and culturally accept this policy. Shuqin Jiang, a Family Planning Official, “initially thought forcing abortions was an atrocity”, and she “wanted to quit several times”. What made her keep the job, and eventually be awarded the Model Worker Certificate from the National Congress, was a leader telling her “it is a national policy” and encouraging her to be more determined to complete the job, blatantly pushing the party’s needs and diminishing the importance of her own. Looking back, she would do it all over again, and believes the leaders were “prophetic,” whereas, Yuan, the midwife, is regretful and has since devoted herself to bringing new life.
Yuan does not recall how many babies she delivered over her career, but she estimates to have performed 50,000 to 60,000 abortions and sterilizations. Since retiring, she has taken an oath not to perform any more deliveries, sterilizations, or abortions. Rather, she focuses on helping families who cannot give birth due to infertility. She “[wants] to atone for her sins,” so when a monk told her, “If you treat the infertile for as little money as possible, then each baby you bring to life could reverse a hundred you killed,” she got to work, and has since helped hundreds of couples, believing that “what goes around comes around”. These two women have drastically different views of the policy and their involvement in it, with one still blindly following the government’s ideals with devotion, and the other now realizing how damaging the policy and her own actions were.
In Chinese culture, families favor male offspring over female, but because ultrasound gender tests were not allowed at the time, the birth was either celebrated with fireworks if the baby were a boy or met with a decision if it were a girl. Baby girls, merely unwanted were abandoned in the street, in the market, or just exposed to the elements. Even in Nanfu’s family, when her mother was pregnant with her second child, her grandmother threatened to put the child in a basket and leave her in the street. Many children thus abandoned died, but some were picked up by human traffickers and sold to orphanages. Some of these human traffickers were sent to jail. However, as the options for stranded babies were either dying in the street due to exposure or being placed in an orphanage from which they had the hope of being adopted, the smuggling of these children may be considered more noble than the policy itself. However, because of the suspicious way they came to the orphanage, the information as to where and by whom they were found was often fabricated.
The documentary, and everyone interviewed in it, all share a sense of helplessness. From the officials enforcing the policy to the families living under it, and everyone in between, no one felt that anything could be done about it. This policy was a direct attack on the family, and the control that the communist party had on the families living in the country cannot be overstated. Limiting family size because it was best for the country completely overlooks the desires of the family, robbing the power of choice from the people in such a fundamental way.
Though the One Child Policy was ended in 2015, the Two Child Policy has now taken its place. China now faces a different population crisis; there are not enough people to take care of the elderly or fill the jobs it needs to, which the government hopes new policy will reconcile.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these” (NIV Bible, Matt 9:14). These children were denied of a life here on Earth and the chance of showing others the child-like faith we are all called to have, thus hindering the faith of any Christians in China. While watching the movie, I could not help
but think of the five children I know who were adopted from China, as they were born under the policy. I wondered where they came from, what their families went through, and if they had any siblings they will never know. From 1999 to 2016, 78,257 children were adopted from China by United States citizens (Pew Research Center, 2017). With a substantial amount of China’s international adoptees in the US (about a third), you most likely know of a child who has been affected by the policy.
While Nanfu’s final remarks were on how important choice is, mine gravitate towards how the government forced 338 million abortions onto its own people. This population of individuals who never got the chance to live or contribute to society, to laugh or love, is slightly higher than the current population of the United States. I cannot imagine the pain that those 338 million mothers and families felt and still feel today, along with the pressure to have a male offspring for fear of what would happen to the newborn otherwise.
The death and pain caused by the policy is insurmountable. Although the policy was state issued, it was people, fellow villagers, who made a living by enforcing it. They felt helpless, but nonetheless devoted to the state and its laws- apart from Huaru Yuan, who takes responsibility for her actions. Villagers were performing abortions, sterilizations, and the like on their fellow villagers, all for the advancement of the country. This is not an issue of the past. China has merely modified this policy, now permitting two children per family, but its implementation remains the same. So, I urge you, before you tune into “A Charlie Brown Christmas” this year, take the time to watch and learn more about this 36-year-long horror story that was all too real, and continues to this day.
1- Unless otherwise noted, quotations will be from the movie, “One Child Nation,” by Amazon Studios, and directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang.