fb-pixel Skip to main content
Movie Review

When the state mandates family planning

Nanfu Wang and her parents.
Nanfu Wang and her parents.

The Chinese government has often tried to erase from the historical record its human rights abuses. Among them are the hardships of the One-Child Policy, a law decreed in 1979 to prevent overpopulation that restricted families to a single child. In 2015, the One-Child Policy was replaced by the Two-Child Policy. But while in effect it had resulted in hundreds of thousands of forced sterilizations, late-term abortions, families torn apart, babies abandoned, and even infanticide, a horrific period recalled in Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s documentary “One Child Nation” by those who experienced it.

Wang (“Hooligan Sparrow,” 2016) had been born in China when the implementation of the policy was at its peak. She immigrated to the United States as an adult; and it wasn’t until she had a baby herself that she decided to investigate the program and its impact on ordinary people — starting with her own family — and make a documentary about it.


She visits her native village, where her mother, younger brother, and other relatives still live. The law was enforced more leniently in remoter regions, with some parents allowed a second child. But in line with a patriarchal culture that valued boys over girls Wang’s mother admits that had her second pregnancy resulted in another girl and not Wang’s brother she would have put the baby in a basket and left it in the street.

Similar to Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence” (2014) in its confrontation with those implicated in past crimes, Wang’s film differs in that many of her subjects are both victims and perpetrators. Bombarded by propaganda — Wang includes a surreal montage of the posters, signs, public service announcements, and theatrical performances used to push the program — and threatened with punishment, most people felt they had no choice but to comply.


Now many regret their participation, like the midwife who performed thousands of involuntary sterilizations. Today she treats couples suffering from infertility and points with desperate pride to rows of banners expressing gratitude from those she has helped. Another health worker also proudly displays testimonials, except these are from the government for performing the same services that the midwife now denounces. She believes that the program, though harsh and heartbreaking, was necessary for the survival of the nation.

Ironically, some of those who come across best are the child traffickers, who would take abandoned babies to state-run orphanages. There they would be put up for adoption to Western couples willing to pay steep prices. It was a lucrative business for the government but dangerous for the traffickers. One explains how he first became involved in the racket when he saw babies, many of them dead, abandoned by the roadside or in the marketplace. He started rescuing them out of compassion. He was one of several traffickers arrested and imprisoned in a highly publicized and grossly hypocritical police operation.

Wang hopes her film will serve to bear witness to the suffering of this shameful period, now being purged from the collective memory with “Nineteen Eighty-Four”-like efficiency. And towards the end she notes the irony of leaving one country where abortion was mandated by the state to another where it is in increasing danger of being made illegal. “Both are about taking away control of women’s bodies,” she warns.




Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. At Kendall Square . 90 minutes. Rated R (for some disturbing content/images, and brief language). In English and Mandarin, with subtitles

Peter Keough can reached at petervkeough@gmail.com