One Child Nation is a documentary on China’s one-child policy that was implemented in 1979 and was in existence till 2015. The policy set a birth quota that allowed a family to only have one child. The documentary uncovers the suffering that people had to bear, and the immoral, horrific acts that were committed daily and routinely in adherence to the policy. Nanfu Wang, the director, was born when the one-child policy was active and lived a significant part of her life in China. She now lives in the US. In the documentary, she returns to China to interview her family members, village officials and midwives to gather their experience of the times when the policy was in place. When the policy came into being, the government offered incentives for people who adhered to it and punishments for those who violated it. The punishment for having more than one child ranged from having your possessions taken away to having your child being taken away and sold to orphanages (which would then put the child up for international adoption). The government, in its efforts to gain people’s support, used propaganda to such an extent that everything from snack boxes to nursery rhymes spoke well of the policy. The village officials and midwives were ordered to perform abortions and sterilisations, women who refused were tied and forcefully brought to the hospital. Another consequence of the one-birth quota was people abandoning their girl child in garbage heaps as they preferred a male child. The documentary aims to preserve the memories of the horrors of the past as post-2015 the Chinese government has replaced the propaganda for one child being the ideal family plan with two children being the preference.
In the first half of the documentary, we see a midwife being interviewed: she used to perform forced sterilisations and abortions when the one-child policy was in place. According to her estimates, she had performed about fifty to sixty thousand sterilisations and abortions. Overcome by the guilt of the past she now only treats male infertility and female infertility disorders; many of her patients who have been able to conceive a child due to her treatments send her a flag as a token of gratitude. She takes Nanfu Wang into the room where those flags are placed, and we see dozens of flags. But not everyone has been troubled by guilt and is working on atonement: one of the midwives who was rewarded and televised by the Chinese government as a role model for family planning officials says that if she were to live that period again, she would do it all over again. Village officials were ordered to punish families with more than one child and force sterilisations. One of the village head officials talks about how he felt the policy was wrong but was helpless and could not do anything about it.
After learning about these atrocities, one is sure to wonder about the number of violations of human rights that must have occurred. The Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights supports the right to “found a family”. Article 16(1)(e) of the International Conference on Population and Development has recognised the right to determine the number of children one wants to conceive. It also said the following on reproductive health: “Reproductive health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes. Reproductive health, therefore, implies that people […] have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so”, which contrasts with the acts of forced sterilisation that have been committed in China. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) asked China to act against the negative consequences like selective abortions and female infanticide that were the result of its one-child policy.
Despite the international human rights law violations, China continued with its tyrannical implementation of the one-child policy. Interestingly, some of the abuses not only violate international law but also China’s domestic law. The Constitution of the PRC states in Articles 48 and 49 that “women in the People’s Republic of China enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life, in political, economic, cultural, social and family life. Marriage, the family, and mother and child are protected by the state. Both husband and wife have the duty to practise family planning.” At one point in the documentary, an artist, who had preserved an abandoned, deceased infant as the haunting memory of the horrific acts that were committed under the one-child policy, talks about how the infant had a smile on his face even though he was deceased: the artist thought that maybe living in China was so miserable that the infant was happy to have not lived at all.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.