What a Picture of China’s One-Child Policy Leaves Out

Three Views of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s ‘One Child Nation’

Brainwashed? Reflections on Propaganda in One Child Nation
By Jie Li

One Child Nation, a documentary distributed by Amazon Studios which was shortlisted for an Academy Award, is becoming one of the most influential films about China in the United States. Marketed as “the truth beyond the propaganda,” the film’s opening credits juxtapose luminous jars of aborted and abandoned fetuses against a military parade of robotic marching soldiers. Equating propaganda with lies, violence, and farce, One Child Nation at once reveals and recycles the logic, power, and aesthetics of propaganda.

Born in 1985, six years after the one-child policy was launched, filmmaker Nanfu Wang grew up seeing its omnipresent reminders “painted on the walls, printed on playing cards, calendars, matches, snack boxes, posters, all of them blended into the background of life in China.” She brings her American-born baby son back to her village in rural Jiangxi province, and describes herself as starting to “remember” the propaganda about the policy in textbooks, plaques on people’s doors, opera and dance performances, TV, and children’s songs. The film includes a photo of her as a teenager in a choir: “This was me performing propaganda songs. We all had the same makeup, the same dresses, and the same mentality.” This makes her wonder “if the thoughts I had were really my own, or if they were simply learned.” The film’s agenda, then, is to expose and unlearn propaganda.

Brilliantly capturing the film’s project, the official poster for One Child Nation is painted in the style of a Chinese propaganda poster. It invites audience members to join a hand-holding couple as they gaze at a giant billboard of a Chinese nuclear family. The radiant sun against a red backdrop, the father’s Mao suit, the Red Guard motifs on the boy’s shirt, and everyone’s euphoric but vacuous “socialist realist gaze” all suggest Maoist imagery. Obscured by this aesthetic signaling is the fact that the one-child policy reversed Mao’s own population policies after his death. The filmmakers highlight artist Wang Peng’s work: painting blood-red fetuses on copies of Mao’s Selected Works. Wang Peng argues that nurses can only kill fetuses after “long-term indoctrination” that “destroys a person’s humanity, individuality, and conscience.” Flattening historical change, the conflation of Maoist and post-Mao propaganda in One Child Nation argues for monolithic communist brainwashing over generations.

Apart from blurring historical distinctions, One Child Nation subsumes common gender ideologies under the same propaganda umbrella. Just as the movie poster features a single boy, the film emphasizes how much Wang’s family favored sons over daughters. Such patrilineal values were precisely what communist propaganda sought to rectify: Actual one-child policy propaganda images of nuclear families mostly featured a single girl in an attempt to change traditional Chinese preference for sons. Yet, as a former village chief puts it in the film, “it was very difficult to change how people think.” Where propaganda failed, coercion was applied through forced sterilizations and abortions, which met with resistance in the form of female infanticide and abandonment. The very real harm against female bodies, infants, and fetuses testifies more to the failure rather than the success of communist propaganda.

Where, then, is “truth”? The movie poster features a cut-out of a pigtailed head positioned at the mother’s womb. As my five-year-old asked when he saw the poster: Why is she cut out? Who cut her? Where did she go? Inviting us to peek into this keyhole, One Child Nation explores the question of China’s skewed gender balance like a detective story, so that the cut-out stands for aborted fetuses, abandoned babies, hidden-away sisters, and adopted girls who now live in America alike. The cut-out calls attention to the surgical scissors of midwives and medical professionals, the bayonets of uniformed soldiers symbolizing a government fighting a “population war,” and perhaps unwittingly, to editing and the craft of filmmaking.

One Child Nation is a beautifully shot and nimbly edited film, with a soundtrack that massages tear-ducts. It offers many moments of horrified recognition, moral outrage, and catharsis, but few occasions to question the film’s dichotomy between Chinese propaganda and Western enlightenment. The filmmakers favor uniformity over dissonance, clarity over ambivalence. In the film’s concluding segment they show a montage of Chinese interviewees saying that they had “no choice.” Wang’s voiceover explains: “When every major life decision is made for you, for all your life, it’s hard to feel responsible for the consequences.”

In stark contrast to their intellectual paralysis, the enlightened dissident filmmaker uses helicopter shots to (con)descend into her home village. Aerial and extreme high angle shots are also applied to an American couple’s collection of “truthful” DNA samples and exposure of the fake advertisements about “lost babies” by Chinese orphanages. Dramatically escalating music accompanies these epic journeys of seeking “the truth beyond the propaganda,” lifting audiences to heights of intellectual and moral superiority over China’s benighted masses.

What, then, is the responsibility of a documentary? Jialing Zhang, the co-director of the film, told an audience at Harvard that documentaries should “bear witness,” especially to atrocities. The greatest contribution of One Child Nation lies with its compelling and complex witnesses—midwives, village officials, human traffickers, and others—yet their ambivalent testimonies are overwhelmed by a domineering voiceover and melodramatic score telling the audience what to think and feel. At one point, Wang’s family members explain their support for the one-child policy through memories of hunger, poverty, the loss of babies to illness, and other struggles for survival. Yet the voiceover discredits those lived experiences: “None of my family questioned the policy.” Here we see an unsmiling Wang seated behind her grandfather amidst other entertained villagers at a traditional opera performance, which is then edited with patriotic propaganda songs and videos: “The government used music and TV to show a better life that they could imagine themselves living, as long as they followed the rules.” Post-Mao propaganda sought to patch over the lived traumas of the Mao-era, yet the therapeutic effects of propaganda are questionable at best. Instead of healing, old wounds continued to fester and utopian visions of a better future legitimized new rounds of violence in the reform era. If One Child Nation could meet as wide an audience in China as it has in the U.S., the conversations it would inspire might peel back those propaganda bandages to probe layers of historical trauma. The filmmakers are promoting the pirated circulation of One Child Nation in China as forbidden knowledge, with the hope that “the film can provoke Chinese people into thinking.” Yet by portraying the Chinese as brainwashed, it is also likely to alienate the most important audience it is trying to reach.

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Same Old Coercion Story
By Susan Greenhalgh

Since 1979/80, when China launched its policy urging (in Chinese tichang, advocating) one child for all, the U.S. media have been obsessed with China’s brutal approach to population control and its terrible human costs. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s and into the 2000s, newspapers were full of stories of pregnant women fleeing their homes, late-term abortions, coerced sterilizations, abandoned babies, trafficking in infants, sex-selective abortion, and foreign adoptions. The one-child policy was the cornerstone of a massively complex and consequential state project to modernize China’s population. Yet for decades, the media almost always viewed it through a single narrow lens: a Cold War narrative of communist coercion, in which a brutal state forced people to limit childbearing, resistance was intense but futile, society was traumatized, and Americans soon came to the rescue by adopting China’s abandoned infants.

An anthropologist, for 25 years I was consumed by the one-child policy, trying to grasp how the Party-state could treat women like animals: “pigs to be spayed,” as one local official put it. It was easy to demonize the state; more difficult was to understand it, and that’s what I sought to do by talking at great length, year after year, to all parties involved, from village women to local birth-planning cadres, to top-level enforcers, policymakers, and scientific advisors. I traveled all over the country, spending significant time in four cities and several villages. I wrote three books and dozens of articles on the making, workings, and unintended effects of this policy that even its creators deplored, calling it a “meiyou banfa de banfa” (a means when there is no means, an absolutely last resort).

In 2019, 50 years after the policy’s launch, Amazon Studios released One Child Nation: The Truth Behind the Propaganda. Nanfu Wang, one of the film’s two directors, uses interviews with her extended family and neighbors, as well as archival photos and propaganda material, to present the same kind of shocking, heart-rending accounts and images that once filled U.S. newspapers, telling a similar story of coercive practices and human trauma. With sophisticated visual and aural techniques, Wang and her co-director, Jialing Zhang, then scale up a story of one family’s trauma into a larger tale of national atrocity. With its tone of barely controlled outrage, militaristic images and soundtrack, and disturbing photos, the film quickly gains a powerful grip on our emotions, leaving us angry at a government that used force on pregnant women and upset with ordinary Chinese “brainwashed” into complying.

The grip on our emotions is especially powerful because Wang and Zhang, evidently without realizing it, tell the story through the frame of the familiar coercion narrative, complete with villain (the state), victims (rural enforcers and targets), and savior (an American couple offering DNA services to match adopted girls in the U.S. with birth parents in China). The characters (at least the victims and saviors) have some emotional complexity, but they still play the stock roles in an oft-told tale. For American viewers, this narrative is comforting, because it provides a simple, morally clear way to react to troubling developments unfolding in a faraway, little understood land. And by using China (communist, state-controlled childbearing) as a foil for the U.S. (liberal, relative reproductive freedom), the film leaves us feeling smug about the assumed superiority of our own system.

The film claims to uncover an unknown history and tell the hidden truth. The reviews have been largely glowing. Rather than independently evaluate the assertions, reviewers have taken them at face value, praising the film for “telling the truth” and unearthing “the untold history of China’s one child policy.” Like the film, the reviews exhibit a strange historical amnesia about the journalism and scholarship on their topic.

The film tells an important, if old, story. But the film’s story is not the truth about the one-child policy. It is only a truth, one possible story that can be told. And it is important to step outside that story and ask hard questions. What is lost when the facts are all forced into that narrative frame? Whose voices are silenced? What realities do the filmmakers neglect or distort to tell this story? And finally, why does it matter?

The film’s biggest distortion is the claim that accounts gathered from one extended family and a few others in two provinces add up to an overarching truth about the entire nation. “Everyone in China would say the same thing (about the policy),” Wang declares late in the film. Puzzlingly, she offers no evidence to support this assertion. Yet historical evidence to the contrary, from my research and that of many others, is overwhelming. In 25 years of travel around the country, I met many women, urban and rural, who were grateful for the birth limits. I will never forget the smile on the face of the Shaanxi villager who in 1986 sought me out to tell me proudly that she was the very first to be sterilized, and so able to avoid more unwanted pregnancies. Or the delight of the professional women in Beijing who in 1999 praised the policy for enabling them to dodge their mother-in-laws’ demands for more children and thus have the freedom to develop their careers. Not everyone welcomed the limits, but the voices of the many who did are not heard in this film.

Wang’s family may have said “meiyou banfa” (there was no way out) to explain their passive compliance, but the demographic data say that vast numbers of couples found banfa and successfully resisted the birth limits. Between 1979 and 1999, somewhere between 82 and 135 million births took place without authorization, with the number dropping over time, from 32 percent of births in the early 1980s to 7 percent in the late 1990s. In my fieldwork over the years, with no agenda beyond understanding, I asked open-ended questions about people’s responses to the policy. The vast majority, people from all walks of life, expressed deep ambivalence, seeing good effects as well as bad.

What the film does show is a story about particular places and times: the two southern provinces where it was shot (Jiangxi, Guangdong), where enforcement was especially harsh, and the first decade (1979/80-93), when forceful Party mobilization was the norm. (Despite the implication that the inhumane practices persisted unchanged over time, enforcement underwent major shifts. After 1993, the state increasingly deemed physically coercive methods unethical and ineffective and largely phased them out, replacing them with incentives and fines.)

The film also gets essential political facts wrong. It calls the one-child policy a law when for most of its life (before 2001) it was just a policy, backed by Party authority but not legal force. It asserts that the one-child policy was written into the 1982 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. This sensationalistic claim has no basis in fact. The 1982 Constitution says only: “both husbands and wives are duty-bound to practice birth planning.” This is just the most significant instance of the film’s systematic mistranslation of its most important term. Whenever an interviewee says “jihua shengyu” (birth planning, often mistranslated as family planning), their words appear in the subtitles as “one-child policy.”

But the two are completely different. Birth planning refers to China’s overarching approach to reproductive control, in which the state utilizes the economic planning apparatus to plan the births of couples countrywide. The one-child policy, by contrast, is a reproductive rule, and it is but one of several such rules that couples were supposed to follow. In contrast to the film’s image of a universal “one-child policy” in effect everywhere during 1979/80-2015, the actual policy varied over time and place. A strict one-child policy was in place nationwide for only a few years in the early 1980s. Over time, more exemptions were added, and in the late 1990s only one-third of Chinese couples were subject to a one-child policy (another 54 percent were subject to a 1.5-child rule, allowing a second if the first was a girl).

The film also leaves out critical dimensions of the population story. In its zeal to highlight negativities, it ignores the positive effects of a policy that by many scholarly accounts boosted the status of girls and helped create the healthiest, best educated, most cosmopolitan generation in Chinese history. It also omits the larger historical context needed to understand the state’s determination to enforce this highly restrictive, politically unpopular policy. In the 1970s, there was widespread consensus, in China and around the world, that China’s rapid population growth and skewed age structure were keeping the nation poor, and that a drastic policy was urgently needed to spur economic development. Urban and rural field studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s showed that, even when they disliked the policy’s impact on their families, China’s people widely supported these arguments, accepting individual sacrifice for the promise of national survival and ascent. When Wang’s mother articulates these very points in the film—insisting that living conditions were terrible, babies were dying, people were starving and on the verge of cannibalism—Wang presents her as brainwashed, unforgivably cowardly in the face of a strong state.

In this age of fake news and multiple competing truth claims, the omissions and distortions of the reality of China’s population policy may not matter to some. Maybe what matters to them is the inescapable emotional truth told by the grisly images. But the stories we tell have political and cultural effects that demand consideration. In the 1980s, the bad-China-good-America narrative inflamed Americans against China, playing into the hands of socially conservative administrations that used it to punish China while pushing an anti-abortion agenda at home. For example, since then, the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Donald J. Trump have withheld the U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund because of its work in China. Culturally, the coercion story has long served as a master narrative, deeply influencing how we think and talk about China. Instead of illuminating the complexities and contradictions—the wrenching moral and political dilemmas produced by the state’s pursuit of laudable goals (modernizing society, restoring national pride) through unacceptably inhumane means—the film oversimplifies, sensationalizes, and distorts. For American viewers who lack knowledge of China’s history, the film provides a narrowly-based moral clarity, at the cost of reinforcing ugly stereotypes, perpetuating anti-China sentiment, and blocking deeper understanding.

For a Chinese audience, the impact could be positive. If the political climate allowed its showing, the film could stimulate open debate of the social, political, and ethical dilemmas that have long preoccupied Western observers of the policy. But that is unlikely to happen; the Party will never permit a challenge to its myth of infallibility. And if the climate were more open, such conversations would have started long before the making of this film.

After a screening at Harvard University, filmmaker Jialing Zhang, facing criticism and pressed about what the film ultimately was about, replied: “Women should control their bodies!” Yes, but sadly, women, whether Chinese or American, have never controlled their bodies. In China, before the state began managing childbearing, reproductive decisions were made by the patriarchal family. Since the shift to a two-child policy, they have been subject to the strong if indirect control of market forces. One form of control may be preferable to another, but freedom over our bodies is an illusion.

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One Child Nation and the Future of Reproductive Freedoms
By Karen Thornber

Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation is a timely documentary. It has been four years since China’s birth planning policy transitioned from a “one-child policy” (1979-2015), which in practice was a one-child policy for only a third of Chinese couples, to a universal two-child policy. Through Wang’s forceful narration and interviews with a range of individuals, One-Child Nation highlights some of the pervasive propaganda for the one-child policy (posters, songs, operas, theatrical performances, films, and relentless mass media campaigns) and eloquently documents how destructive this policy was and continues to be for countless individuals, families, and communities. One-Child Nation compellingly reveals the traumas and emotions that millions still endure as a result of the one-child policy. Victims, enablers, and enforcers alike express anger, guilt, despair, helplessness, resignation, and justification. Common refrains are that there was “no way out” (没办法, mei banfa) and that individual sacrifice was necessary to ensure the future of China. We hear of the horrors of everything from forced abortion (often late-term) and sterilization, to abandoning infants and outright infanticide (mostly of infant girls, not unlike infanticide in other overwhelmingly patriarchal countries such as India), to families who were heavily fined, whose homes were demolished, and/or who were evicted from their villages for having more than one child, to abductions and child trafficking, to families searching decades later for children taken from them and adopted by Western families who had believed they were orphans and/or abandoned.

One Child Nation resonates with other recent cultural production, both within and outside China, that exposes the terrors of the past and the painful legacies experienced in the present as a result of China’s one-child policy. Nobel prize winning Chinese writer Mo Yan’s novel Frog (2009), for instance, features a woman severely haunted by the countless abortions she performed on other women, often forcibly. She echoes the midwife Wang interviews, who delivered Wang but who also was complicit in tens of thousands of forced sterilizations and abortions. The midwife tells Wang that despite decades of successful work with infertile couples, she feels she can never atone for her actions during the years of the one-child policy. And Chinese-British writer Ma Jian (whose novels are banned in China) devotes The Dark Road (2013), based on extensive fieldwork, to revealing the devastating enforcement of the one-child policy inflicted on a rural family.

To be sure, as is true of Frog, The Dark Road, and numerous novels, films, and other art, Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation gives only a partial perspective of life in China under the one-child policy. Scholars such as Susan Greenhalgh have rightly pointed out the film’s many lacunae, distortions (including overgeneralizations), and failures to address the policy in broader perspective, especially its clear and substantial benefits to significant numbers of women. Despite its title, One Child Nation ultimately tells stories not of the “nation” in its entirety but instead of specific families and communities within China, stories that nevertheless echo the stories of millions of families and communities across the nation.

Yet One Child Nation does more. In addition to telling stories of life under China’s one-child policy, this documentary also forces us to think about the future of reproductive freedom. In its final minutes, One Child Nation speaks explicitly of similarities between China and the United States. Wang comments, “I’m struck by the irony that I left a country where the government forced women to abort, and I moved to another country [the United States] where governments restrict abortions. On the surface, they seem like opposites. But both are about taking away women’s control of their own bodies.” She then states that after 35 years of the one-child policy, “there aren’t enough young people in China to work and care for the elderly. So China is introducing a new family planning policy.” One Child Nation concludes with examples of the propaganda for this new two-child policy.

Suggested but not said explicitly is that China’s two-child policy might become less about forcing families to stop at two children than penalizing them for stopping before two. Birthrates continue to fall in China (from 12.8 births per 1,000 population in 2008, to 12.4 per 1,000 in 2015, to 11.5 per 1,000 in 2019; fewer children were born in China in 2019 than in any year since 1961), just as they are falling in many parts of the world. Despite their governments’ efforts to increase their nations’ birthrates, China’s East Asian neighbors Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all have fewer than 10 births per 1,000 population annually. As concerns grow over China’s ability to support its rapidly aging population, slogans such as “One is too few; two is just right!” and “The young will have siblings; the old will be cared for” could lead to punitive measures inflicted on individuals with fewer than two children.

Romania under the Ceausescu regime took compulsory childbearing to the extreme: rather than forced abortion and sterilization, there was a ban on abortion, sterilization, and even contraception; frequent gynecological examinations were mandatory not to ensure that women were not pregnant but instead to ensure that women who were pregnant remained pregnant, and there were serious financial penalties for having not too many but instead too few children.

State power over individuals has greatly declined in China, and it is highly doubtful that the Chinese government would resort to such tactics. But just as Wang points out at the end of One Child Nation, government interference in family size and its control of women’s bodies is not unique to China, nor are these measures limited to societies concerned with reducing births. Abortion is prohibited or highly restricted in much of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. And even in some countries where abortion remains legal—including the United States—it is highly controversial and becoming increasingly inaccessible. One Child Nation forces us to think more deeply about the policies of our own governments, which might not be as extreme as parts of China’s under the one-child policy but in much of the world interfere far more deeply, and dangerously, than we might expect.