Movies

Review: One Child Nation

A quietly horrifying look back at China’s disastrous, 35-year-long national birth-control program.

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Anyone drawn to the now-resurgent notion that collectivism is kind of cool would benefit from a viewing of One Child Nation, a documentary that demonstrates what can happen when state bureaucrats are allowed to fundamentally re-order their country's most intimate cultural customs. The film's subject is China's disastrous one-child policy, which was imposed upon the populace from 1979 to 2015. During that time, no family was allowed to have more than one child; occasional exceptions were allowed, mainly in rural areas, but they had to be granted by Communist Party officials down to the village level. Families that made the mistake of quietly spawning a second child were ratted out to authorities by neighborhood snoops, who were encouraged by the state. Unlicensed babies were seized and placed in state orphanages. Forced abortion and sterilization were key tools in the struggle to contain China's exploding population, which had topped a billion people.

The film was directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, two China-born filmmakers now residing in the West. The picture seems artless—an assemblage of period file footage and talking heads, basically—but its cumulative impact is powerful. By the end I felt that my heart was ready to burst from my chest and leap to its death down on the floor.

The people we see in this film are discussing terrible things they did in the past. An old midwife, who says she carried out between 50,000 and 60,000 abortions and sterilizations over the course of her career (a sterilization took about 10 minutes, she says), recalls inducing the births of infants and then killing them. ("I had no choice," she says. "We didn't make decisions, we only executed orders.") Another woman recalls the birth of the second child for which she had secured permission, and her own mother coming into the room with a bamboo basket and saying, "If it's another girl, we'll put her in the basket and leave her in the street." Yet another woman remembers accompanying her brother to leave his unwanted baby girl on a meat counter in a country market. The child remained there for two days and two nights, unwanted by anyone. "Her face was full of mosquito bites," says the woman, who apparently watched. "She eventually died."

The one-child policy was hard on some men, too. An ex-village chief recalls having to demolish the homes of people who had illegally had a second child. Naturally they resented this, and especially the man responsible for it. "It was really tough being an official back then," he says. He also remembers being called out with a group of other men to subject a rebellious woman to forced sterilization. "I couldn't take part in that," the former chief says. "I just stood and watched."

The growing excess of female children became the basis for a grim trade. One man remembers biking around the countryside in the old days and coming upon four or five abandoned babies on a single ride. ("I just watched them die," he says.) Perceiving the possibility of profit, he became a trafficker in live infants, selling them to the state orphanages for the equivalent of $200 each. After the government began allowing the adoption of Chinese children by foreigners in 1992, the trafficking in infants reached a mini-industrial scale. One American, a man named Brian Stuy, of Lehi, Utah, who has adopted three Chinese girls with his wife, says the price of purchasing one of these babies can run from $10,000 to $25,000—a very nice profit margin for the state.

Stuy and his Chinese wife, Long Lan, run a company called Research China, which uses an international DNA database to connect Chinese "orphans" adopted by Americans to their Chinese birth parents back in the old country. In the film's most moving passage, we learn the story of two twin girls, now 16, who were separated when the Chinese government took one of them and sold her to an American couple. Because of Western press interest, the twin left behind on her family's farm has learned she has a sister overseas, and she wonders about her.

"She probably has milk and bread for breakfast," this girl says. "Her life must be very good there. I hope one day she will come back." As her eyes begin to well up, the girl says, "We'd dress the same, have the same hairstyle, go to school together. It would be so great to do everything together." If it need be said, this is a truly heartbreaking moment. What are the chances these two girls might one day be reunited? (We learn in the film that the Stateside twin has declined to be put back in touch with her birth parents, but that she and her sister are now in touch through social media.)

It's hard to imagine—no, it's impossible to imagine—anyone sitting through this film and emerging from it harboring anything but loathing for the inhuman Chinese communist social system it depicts. But as the totalitarian temptation beckons once again in this fraught time, I wonder if Thomas L. Friedman will see it, and what he might say. You may recall that Friedman, the inimitable New York Times columnist, wrote a piece back in 2009—when the one-child policy was still in full effect—suggesting that America might have a few lessons to learn from China.

"There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy," Friedman wrote, "and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today. One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century."

Sounds like a plan, I'm afraid.

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  1. A whole lotta “just following orders” in there.

    1. The orders came from Top Men.
      Its simply inconceivable that their orders could ever be wrong or bad.

      1. Or disobeyed. You could get away with small things, but a child has to be hidden forever, and it only takes one snitch to make the disobedient known.

    2. You know who else…

      I’ll see myself out.

      1. McDonalds Drive-Thru workers?

        No, they never seem to follow orders.

      2. The folks who erased Hillary’s hard drives?

  2. Policies like this are truly despicable. In a free, libertarian society the people happily and without reservation or pressure choose to obtain state-funded abortions! Silly chinks.

    1. I wondered how soon I’d see n anti-abortion rant, but I thought it would be better than this/

      In a free, libertarian society the people happily and without reservation or pressure choose to obtain state-funded abortions!

  3. One wonders, what would have happened had the government not taken these horrific measures?

    They were on track to have more than two billion people before the turn of the millennium, if I recall. Would the economic reforms have ever happened? Would they have lost tens or hundreds of millions to starvation? That’s what they were worried about.

    Tough dilemma. They certainly picked a bad answer. I wonder how many better answers were available at the time.

      1. An excellent real-world example of why ponzi schemes don’t work long term.

    1. Except no country has ever had famine due to overpopulation. It’s just not a thing that happens.

      The famine that caused the Maoist one child policy was a direct result of the disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward, which put incompetents in charge of the agriculture, engaged in systematic devastation of sparrows (causing literal plagues of locusts), undermined the autonomy of independent farmers, and caused mass destruction of tools to meet backyard scrap iron production.

      If we wanted, Earth could almost double its agricultural production in a matter of a few years with no technological breakthroughs. Only a small portion of our population is now farmers. We already burn huge quantities of crops in biofuels and waste huge amounts more in inefficiencies like grain-fed meat.

      This is not, has never been, and will never be population-induced starvation. That is a myth created by people who fundamentally do not understand how agriculture works.

      1. Land devoted to agriculture has decreased the last few years, even while producing more food and feeding more people.

        1. It really is remarkable. We feed more people using less labor and land, and the result is that we are “regreening” the planet by freeing up more land to be managed for wild flora and fauna (if desired).

          1. I wonder how much of this is due to the death of the USSR and Warsaw Pact and the terribly inefficient agricultural policies they had. But it keeps on decreasing 30 years later, so I suspect it’s systemic to free markets.

            1. Listen to this EconTalk

              https://www.econtalk.org/andrew-mcafee-on-more-from-less/

              I have the book order, but the guest makes a convincing argument that this is the combination of capitalism and technology. I agree.

              1. I know it’s tech and free markets for the long term trend. My question is how much of a bump is from the death of inefficient collective farming?

      2. This is not, has never been, and will never be population-induced starvation. That is a myth created by people who fundamentally do not understand how agriculture works.

        This. Malthusian nonsense is nonsense for a reason. The fact that some morons still buy into it is mind boggling.

    2. Maybe they would have reached two billion people. Maybe there would have been some feedback mechanisms that self-regulated the population growth.

      But let’s not pretend that the choice was between the one-child policy and a population too large to feed and support. The Chinese government could have always went off the board and abandoned communism and embraced free markets even more fully. The technological advances would have made it possible to provide a high standard of living to a larger population and the additional wealth would probably have led to smaller families anyway. Of course, that would have required the state and the party to give up power. They made their choice.

      1. It also isn’t a given that they would have abandoned Mao style economics had they not gone with the one child policy. If starvation was on the table, it could easily have gone the Mao route – with financial managers and factory executives being shipped out to work on the farms in order to feed the people.

        Who knows? All I know is that once you’ve painted yourself into that corner, getting out is pretty damned difficult. (said corner being a billion people in a rural agrarian economy with a repressive communist government that has a recent history of starving 30 million of its own people and an explosive population growth curve with more than half of the population being young people coming of age and wanting to have a family. Remember, people who were exiting high school at the time of the one child policy were the first generation after the great famine. It was that recent.)

    3. One of the things I always find most remarkable about totalitarian systems is how poorly the TOP MEN run things. Rarely do they ever even execute plans that properly achieve the goals they have in mind intelligently. It’s crazy, because often times the repercussions are so obvious.

      I mean any moron with a brain cell or two should have realized a TWO child policy was a lot better, for many reasons. Namely they wouldn’t be hitting their impending population collapse/greying of their population right now, or possibly ever. More people would have been okay with it. Far less evil shit needing to be done.

      Let alone you just let people do what they want, which is obviously a better idea.

  4. Select bits from wiki

    It was introduced in 1979 (after a decade-long two-child policy)

    The fertility rate in China continued its fall from 2.8 births per woman in 1979 (already a sharp reduction from more than five births per woman in the early 1970s)

    …76% of Chinese people said that they supported the policy in a 2008 survey…

    By one estimate there were at least 22 ways in which parents could qualify for exceptions to the law towards the end of the one-child policy’s existence

    Therefore, the term “one-child policy” is a misnomer, because for nearly 30 of the 36 years that it existed (1979–2015), about half of all parents in China were allowed to have a second child.

    Since there are no penalties for multiple births, it is believed that an increasing number of couples are turning to fertility medicines to induce the conception of twins…

    … by 2060 China’s birth planning policies may have averted as many as 1 billion people in China when one adds in all the eliminated descendants of the births originally averted by the policies…

    The one-child policy’s limit on the number of children has prompted parents of women to start investing money in their well-being. As a result of being an only child, women have increased opportunity to receive an education, and support to get better jobs. One of the side effects of the one-child policy is to have liberated women from heavy duties in terms of taking care of many children and the family in the past; instead women had a lot of spare time for themselves to pursue their career or hobbies…

    Effective from January 2016, the national birth planning policy became a universal two-child policy

    Corrupted government officials and especially wealthy individuals have often been able to violate the policy in spite of fines

    1. Do you really think that that’s not propaganda? Seriously. “We stole your reproductive rights, but now you are more free since you don’t have to take care of kids”. That’s Ministry of Truth level discussion there.

      1. The use of the term “eliminated descendants” is the dead giveaway. Although I suppose it does sound better than “aborted and/or murdered babies.”

      2. Yes, apparently to the OP oppression is freedom.

    2. I’ve seen a couple of TV news magazine style pieces about being a young woman today in China. Because of this policy, they are significantly outnumbered by young men. So they have even more dating power than young women in the rest of the world. Moms actively promote their sons with posters and dating resume’s, looking to find a match – touting their earning potential, etc.

      So it probably has never been a better time to be a woman in China for lots of reasons.

      1. This reminds me of an old joke I used to tell my sister. (she’s my half-sister, her mom is my dad’s 2nd wife)

        Anyway, my stepmom is Korean and she places a lot of importance/status on who my sister would eventually marry. So back in 2000 when my dad was in the hospital I joked with my sister “I bet she’s out shopping you to doctors right now, probably has a folder with pictures and everything.”

        “Ha ha, bro”.

        Fast forward to a year later, my sister gets unsolicited calls from several doctors and a lawyer asking her out because her mom had indeed been talking her up at church and other places. I still think she had a folder with pictures and a resume, although we’ve never found it.

      2. Yes, being surrounded by crowds of frustrated, resentful, hyper-libidinous young men must be every girl’s dream….

      3. Cyto: Yes, being surrounded by crowds of frustrated, resentful, hyper-libidinous young men must be every girl’s dream….

        1. I’ve known a few boys who could have dreamed that.

        2. Girls actually do like to hook up too…

          But, more to the point: if you are a 6 in a 50/50 society, you get to date a 6, maybe 7, maybe a 5. You aren’t trading on your looks to massively upgrade your status.

          But if you are a 6 in China right now, you can go to a big city financial center, present yourself correctly and get a top level manager making more money each year than your entire family will earn in their entire lives. That’s the advantage. And if you are a 9/10? Play your cards right and there is fabulous wealth beyond imagining available. Which, if you are a 9 or 10 isn’t all that unusual, I suppose.

          Of course the disadvantage is that society is likely to maintain a pretty guy-centric ethos, as you point out.

          I’ve actually lived in the inverse word – at a US university where the ratio was 60:40 women to men. Of course, most of us had no clue that the dating marketplace was radically distorted. As a nerdy science major who was in the band, I was dating women who were being courted by soon-to-be NBA and NFL athletes. I dated an all-american volleyball player and a cheerleader. I had no clue that the demographics of our micro-society played a role. But I took full advantage and married a solid 8, 9 on a good day. Way out of my league. Unless I was living on campus where women outnumber men 2 to 1.

          1. If you are still married you did not take advantage and she is not out of your league.

          2. It is weird how these things work… I live in techie land where there is definitely a skewed ratio in my age range… Unfortunately it is skewed towards over supply of dudes. I’m not an anti social weirdo, so it doesn’t completely kill me, but compared to my home town with its normal 50/50 ratio it sucks. In my hometown it was liking shooting fish in a barrel!

      4. It’s only good for young women.

        For those who are in their late 20s or older, it is a bleak outcome, as men are looking for someone to bear children and China hasn’t developed the same level of OB/GYN care that is found in the West. While American women into their 40s are routinely having healthy children, in China the fear is that a mother over 30 is at major risk of miscarriage or defective children.

        1. Uhhh, in the real world, that’s a thing in the west too. Most women in their 40s DO NOT have proper healthy children. Kids born to older women have lower IQs and other issues, even if they’re not full on down syndrome.

          Either way, I’m sure there are plenty of thirsty 40 year old Chinese men who will settle for a cute 31 year old.

    3. The one-child policy’s limit on the number of children has prompted parents of women to start investing money in their well-being.

      Well, the parents who didn’t sell off, abort, or leave their daughters to die, at least.

      1. Yeah, gotta hand it to Mr. Chinese Propagandist here for his ability to ignore examples that run counter to the propaganda’s narrative. Cultists are really creepy.

  5. Horrifying. One has to wonder, why didn’t China elect the means of other poor countries towards population control and nationalize the interests of a multinational or oil company? That would have brought in the American B-52s and, voila, instant population control. China is dumb.

  6. Another woman recalls the birth of the second child for which she had secured permission, and her own mother coming into the room with a bamboo basket and saying, “If it’s another girl, we’ll put her in the basket and leave her in the street.” Yet another woman remembers accompanying her brother to leave his unwanted baby girl on a meat counter in a country market. The child remained there for two days and two nights, unwanted by anyone.

    I’m gonna remember stories like these the next time I hear some pinhead whinging about how tough it is to be a woman in the USA in the year 2019 because of a non-existent pay gap. Jesus titty-fucking Christ.

  7. a documentary that demonstrates what can happen when state bureaucrats are allowed to fundamentally re-order their country’s most intimate cultural customs.

    But enough about government run healthcare…

  8. a documentary that demonstrates what can happen when state bureaucrats are allowed to fundamentally re-order their country’s most intimate cultural customs.

    China is a How-to manual for the modern Democratic Party.

    1. But remember, every way that the PRC failed to bring Utopia wasn’t “real” Socialism.

  9. Soviet communism was much more efficient. The government took all the food, gave it to the right people, and let the wrong people starve to death. Population problem solved.

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