One Child Nation

The horrors of China's one-child policy


New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who admires what a single-party autocracy such as China's can accomplish when it is "led by a reasonably enlightened group of people," praised that country's "one child" policy in a 2008 book, saying it "probably saved China from a population calamity."

In the Amazon Prime Video documentary One Child Nation, the Chinese-American filmmaker Nanfu Wang lays bare the brutal reality of the oppressive regime that was so glibly endorsed by rich Westerners who take their own reproductive freedom for granted. She shows that the one-child policy, in force from 1979 to 2015, routinely relied on extortion, assault, kidnapping, and infanticide.

Returning to the farming village in Jiangxi province where she was born and raised, Wang talks to an uncle and an aunt who mournfully remember the infant daughters they felt compelled to abandon. Wang's grandfather says he had to dissuade local officials from sterilizing her mother after Wang was born.

One of those village leaders tells Wang "the one-child policy was very difficult to implement" because "people resisted." If they couldn't be persuaded by propaganda, they would be punished by confiscation of their possessions or demolition of their homes. Recalcitrant women were physically forced to undergo sterilization. "It was really fucked up," the former official says. "We below didn't want to do this, but we had no choice."

A local midwife estimates that she performed 50,000 to 60,000 sterilizations and abortions. "Many I induced alive and killed," she says. "My hand trembled doing it."

A former family planning official recalls that "sometimes pregnant women tried to run away" from forced abortions, often performed at eight or nine months, and "we had to chase after them." Unlike the midwife, she is proud of her work, agreeing with Thomas Friedman that "the policy was absolutely correct."