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The Kids of China's 80s One-Child Policy Still Feel Its Pain

‘One Child Nation’, a new film by director Nanfu Wang, explores the ongoing impact of decades-long population control.

by Ruby Lott-Lavigna
09 August 2019, 8:15am

Film still via Dogwoof. 

In 1980, China introduced one of the most extreme population control policies the world had ever seen. Families would be limited to one child, financial incentives would be given to those who stuck to the law, and anyone who disobeyed would incur a fine. Except, it wasn’t quite that simple. While mass propaganda endorsed the concept of a one-child nation, enforcement of the policy meant babies torn from parents and given to ‘orphanages’ without their knowledge; forced abortions and sterilisation; and even cases of babies (often girls) abandoned and left to die.

Although the one-child policy ended in China in early 2016 (due, ironically, to an underpopulation problem), its effects are only really starting to be discussed. One Child Nation, a film by Nanfu Wang, unpicks the, frankly, fucking horrible past of the policy, after growing up under it. As a new mother, Wang challenges relatives, family friends, and government figures on the lengths they went to to abide by their country’s laws, and confronts the latent trauma still present for families during the era.

VICE spoke to Wang about the challenges of making the film, and what she discovered through the process.

VICE: Hi Nanfu. What prompted a desire to make this film?
Nanfu Wang: In early 2017, I got pregnant and it changed how I see a lot of things like my own life, the world and the future, and it was then that I started thinking more and more about the one-child policy. That was basically the genesis and the beginning of the making of the film.

What was the most shocking thing that you discovered over the course of the film?
My co-director Lynn Zhang (who also does her own research) and I both grew up in China, and we both thought that we knew everything that there is to know about the one-child policy. But the more we researched, the more that we discovered things that we didn’t know, for example, that the government would send babies to orphanages for international adoption. The number of forced abortions and sterilisation and the scale of the propaganda – it’s shocking how it permeates every aspect of life.

We decided very early on to use propaganda as a thread in our film, so we intentionally collected all of the propaganda that existed. We wanted to build and explore through old posters, calendars, matches. The amount of the stuff and the variety of the stuff really shocked us. While making the film we realised that it is really hard for anyone in China who grew up there to not think that the one-child policy is great because that is the message that is everywhere.

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All film stills via Dogwoof.

How much were you already aware of before you started making this film?
I knew about sterilisation because of my mum. Right after I was born, she was forced into being sterilised. My family had to fight for me to have a younger brother and right after my younger brother was born, my mum was sterilised. I knew that every woman needed to be sterilised after one child and if they wanted more than one child they would be taken to get the sterilisation.

I [also] knew about abandoned young baby girls because I remember while growing up in my village, there were many times around midnight, 5 AM or 6 AM that I would hear a baby’s cries. I remember many early mornings my mum would say, “Oh another family has abandoned a girl, I wonder who’s family that is.” This was so common. In the morning, a lot of people would see a girl abandoned on the butcher's table or the vegetable seller’s counter and they would discuss which family the baby might come from. But I didn’t know that first of all, my aunt gave away her daughter and my uncle thought his daughter died. Especially the details and because I was a child when I knew those things, it didn’t occur to me how dramatic and emotional it could be. I never thought about it from the perspective of a mother myself.

VICE: Why do you think it isn't more well known? I guess for Chinese nationals, there’s the propaganda, but why do you think it isn’t more widely known across the world?
I think, for a few reasons. One – the Chinese government really tried to restrict information within the country. For example, with the orphanage scandal, the corruption within the international adoption system was investigated and reported by local journalists but the government would fire them or sentence them or they would be exiled, and the news was not allowed to come out of China.

There were definitely some stories that were reported in the Western media but for some reason, I think that for the majority of the Western people, the message that they got and that they still get is focused on the economic programme. Most Western people either don’t have access to the information about the real brutality of the one-child policy, or it’s there but they aren’t actively looking because of the abundance of information in our current society.

VICE: Your film and the one-child policy in many ways feels like a very woman-centric story, from the midwives to the doctors to the women who were affected. Do you think that is part of why it hasn’t sparked outrage on an international level as much?
Men were sterilised as well, although it’s not as common, far less common than women. When a woman would escape or hide somewhere to carry the baby, the man would be taken into sterilisation and sometimes to prison as well. I think the policy definitely impacted both men and women.

The reason that the policy was overlooked isn’t just to do with women or men but more to do with two things. Firstly, reproductive rights because I think a lot of people don’t consider that to be a basic human right. China is just one country that took it to the extreme and only allowed each family to have one child. But examples of governments that control women’s reproductive rights, whether it’s the size of the family or whether or not she can or cannot have a child, it’s not uncommon. There were many governments that had restrictions and still have restrictions over women’s or human’s reproductive rights. Looking back, there were not more examinations because it was not a basic right that was acknowledged by people.

Throughout the film, are there any questions that you wish you could have asked? Or are there any that you weren’t able to ask during filming?
Interesting. I wanted to ask all the people who said that the policy was great and that China’s economy would not have made so much progress without the one-child policy: does the end justify the means? There is already a lot of debate among sociologists and economists whether the one-child policy has contributed to China’s economy, and the answer is debatable because no one can do the study with or without looking at the factors that contributed to it. It could be the cheap work and labour as well and many other things.

So, that is a question that can’t have an answer but it is a question that I wanted to ask people. But I didn’t ask a lot of people because I know from all of the interviews that a lot of their narratives were official narratives that they were taught and exposed to, so I knew that the argument wouldn’t have any result.

Obviously, China has now dropped the one-child policy and now has a two-child policy. Does this still risk sterilisations and forced abortions?
No. A lot of people predict that China will lift all the limits of how many children a family can have because China has a severe lack of workforce and an ageing society. So the government needs a larger workforce, and more young people to work and to support the elderly. The government is actually encouraging people to have more children, ironically, but after over 35-years of propaganda, a lot of people still believe that one-child is best. So even though the one-child policy has ended and the government encourages you to have two children, a lot of couples choose not to have a second child. So now the government is using all kinds of incentives to make people have more children.

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A snack box featuring pro-one-child policy propaganda.

How do you think China will recover from the one-child policy?
I don’t know. I think the damage of the one-child policy is far from over, and some of the effects are just starting to surface because the gender imbalance problem and the generations of single children that have become parents themselves, and their children are now growing up without any cousins or uncles and aunts.

A lot of the adopted Chinese children outside of China have grown up and as adults, have started to question the true story of their own origins. So a lot of the damage and the trauma is starting to surface and it might take decades for the country to recover.

I think more importantly the government did not admit that they made a mistake when they ended the one-child policy. The overall narrative was still that the policy was really great and that it contributed to the country. The government’s justification for ending the policy was that they had always strategically planned for the policy to relapse once the economy was better. Shockingly, the new propaganda around the two-child policy actually uses some very similar tactics to force people to have more children.

If that is the case and the propaganda remains the same, then it’s going to be even more challenging for the country to recover.


One Child Nation is released in selected cinemas on Friday the 9th of August.

@RubyJLL