“One Child Nation” is a riveting, heartrending documentary, which won the coveted U.S. Grand Jury Sundance prize, and, though it didn’t make the final list, was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination.
Co-directed by award-winning documentarian Nanfu Wang (who narrates) and Jialing Zhang, “One Child Nation” reveals the horrific consequences of China’s brutal one-child policy, in effect from 1979 until 2015. Wang, who moved to the United States to attend university, says it was the premature birth of her first child that caused her to think about a policy she was indoctrinated in all her life.
“Becoming a mother became like giving birth to my memories.”
She began to wonder about the lived reality underneath the relentlessly positive slogans.
A courageous, unflinching storyteller, Wang returned to China with her infant son to interview her relatives and the former head of her village, among others, about the policy that was promoted as saving China from starvation and economic disaster, but became a reign of terror.
As Wang writes, “China started a war against population growth but it became a war against its own people.” Propaganda and economic incentives to encourage one child families soon became deadly coercion: destruction of property, forced sterilizations and abortions, and infanticide, most especially of baby girls, who were either killed outright or left on the streets to die.
In an unforgettable scene, Wang interviews her village’s midwife Huaru Yuan. How many babies have you delivered, she asks.
“I really don’t know how many I delivered,” she answers. “What I do know is that have done between 50,000 and 60,000 sterilizations and abortions. I counted this out of guilt because I aborted and killed babies. Many I induced alive and killed. My hands trembled doing it. But I had no choice, it was the government’s policy . . . we only executed orders.”
The details are shocking: “women were abducted by government officials and dragged to us like pigs” for forced procedures. Wang also talks to her uncle, who, forced to relinquish his baby girl, left her at the meat market, with some money tucked in her blanket, hoping someone would take her. She died after two days and two nights of exposure. He cried for days and has never gotten over his loss. For the film’s 89 minutes, the viewer sees the terrible human costs of the one child policy, to women, to men, parents, grandparents, siblings, and officials forced to inflict violence on their neighbors.
So it was quite jarring to hear this commentary from Wang, towards the close:
“I’m struck by the irony,” she says, “that I left a country where the government forced women to abort, and I moved to another country where governments restrict abortions. . . . On the surface, this seemed like opposites. But both are taking away women’s control of their own bodies.”
Wait . . . What? To be sure, women had little control over their own bodies — but what broke them was the destruction of their own children. Wang’s own comment contradicts her disclaimer: “There’s a collective trauma the nation is experiencing, but many people aren’t aware of it. Losing a child is something you cannot forget — it’s something that stays with you for life.”
I am struck by this irony: “One Child Nation,” a film about indoctrination, has to have a disclaimer — an “of course the filmmakers are pro-choice” — because our indoctrinating media and entertainment culture insist on it. So, while the film may seem to indict abortion, while we are haunted by grief-stricken parents and images of dead babies, we are not to believe what our eyes see. Rather, we are meant to equate those who think the law should protect unborn and just-born babies with the Chinese communists! Two sides of the same coin.
Disclaimer or not, “One Child Nation” is about lost and murdered children.
Wang Peng, an artist interviewed on screen, had a life-changing experience when he found a fully-formed boy fetus in a trash heap. He brought the baby home and preserved the body in a jar — we see close ups of the child’s perfect feet, hands and head in the film’s opening scenes. He became compelled to populate his work with fetuses, to remember those lost. For his work called “Motive,” he painted a red fetus on every single page — 366 — of Mao Tse Tung’s “The Thoughts of Chairman Mao,” to signify that these deaths happen every day. His work is meant to show the “fragility of life and the respect that every life deserves.”
That is the powerful message of “One Child Nation,” which perhaps rendered it too controversial for the Oscar nomination it deserves.
Maria McFadden Maffucci is the editor in chief of the Human Life Review (www.humanlifereview.com), a quarterly journal devoted to the defense of human life, founded in 1974 by her father, James P. McFadden, Associate Publisher of National Review. She is President of the Human Life Foundation, based in midtown Manhattan, which publishes the Review and supports pregnancy resource centers. Mrs. Maffucci’s articles and editorials have appeared in the Human Life Review, First Things, National Review Online, National Review, Verily. A Holy Cross graduate with a BA in Philosophy, she is married to Robert E. Maffucci, and the mother of three children. Her interests include exploring opportunities for individuals with special needs. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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