During the 1970s, China’s population reached 1 billion. Fearing widespread famine, the government imposed a limit of one child per family and began enforcing it in 1979 with propaganda and strong-arm tactics. As the only children raised in the first years of this policy have reached adulthood, some of them are exploring its effects, intended and otherwise, in feature films, live-action and animated shorts, and documentaries.
With One Child Nation, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang have created a wide-ranging documentary that begins with Wang’s family, who resisted forced sterilization of her mother and eventually got the family planning bureau to allow her have another child after a wait of five years. Not many families were so lucky.
Resisters had their homes bulldozed and late-term pregnancies aborted against their will. Many baby girls—Chinese families still want sons—were abandoned by roadsides or in marketplaces, where they died or were scooped up and sold to orphanages for adoption outside the country. And in a sobering reminder of what has happened at the southern border of the United States, children were taken from their families and adopted out in a money-making scheme for the Chinese orphanages.
The pain of this 35-year period is still felt by the people Wang interviews, but their responses that they could do nothing sound hollow, particularly to Wang, who lives in the U.S. and who feels there is no real difference between forced abortion and restrictions on abortion—both trample on women’s choice. Human population growth is a real problem, but One Child Nation argues through the stark emotions of the midwife, artist, family planning official, and affected families who spoke out for the camera that legislating it out of existence is not the answer.