Nanfu Wang’s and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation is a discomforting look at the rippling impact of China’s single-child policy. Born in China in 1985, Wang herself was brought into this world during the most harshly restrictive reproductive policy in China’s recent history. Introduced in 1979 as a solution to a growing population crisis, the law was lauded by the government as “prophetic” and the only solution to a looming “population war.” A two-child policy was implemented in 2016 and limits may soon be dropped entirely, but as evinced by the film, the effects of the nearly 30-year directive are evident throughout the nation.
Wang’s interviews start with a navel gaze as she travels from her home in the U.S. to visit her family in Asia, spurred by the birth of her own son and a rekindled interest in China’s draconian reproductive policy. After some disturbing realizations courtesy of stories from her Chinese family and their community leaders, her lens widens to encompass the nation overall. Painful retellings of forced sterilizations and abortions for women who’d reached their offspring quota give way to overlying paradigms of misogyny and a general, societal surrender caused by the trauma of living under such a harsh rule.
Given China’s severe censorship and despotic grip on its own portrayal in the media, it’s shocking at times to witness the candidness with which some of Wang’s informants describe the corruption, invasiveness and downright criminal activity promulgated by the Chinese government while implementing the one-child policy. Though clearly critical of the political regime and reproductive limits, Wang’s interviews cover both critics and proponents — or at least enablers — of this inhumane family planning policy. Even with the balanced approach, the pervasive message is one of tragedy and powerlessness.
While overpopulation crises are definite threats that humanity needs to address, One Child Nation intelligently chronicles the irreparable damage caused when a government invasively exercises its power over the reproductive decisions that women make concerning their own bodies. For many Americans heading into this documentary, China’s one-child policy may seem at once relatively unclear and distant both in place and time. Wang’s important film lifts the veils of the past and exposes the policy as a blatant violation of human rights that has traumatized entire generations into feeling powerless and resigned.
Starts Aug. 30 at Grail Moviehouse