Documentarian Nanfu Wang grew up in rural China under the country’s “one child” policy, which lasted from 1979 to 2015. Her own parents had two children, since the law made an exception for families living in rural areas, as long as the children were at least five years apart — but not until after her mother narrowly escaped involuntary sterilization. Many other women were not so lucky. The policy’s mental, physical, and emotional toll on the country, especially its women, was tremendous.
To enforce such an invasive policy on a population as large as China’s required more than just strict policing — it required self-policing, especially in rural areas, far away from more densely populated urban centers. So, as One Child Nation shows, the Chinese government blanketed the country with propaganda intended to convince citizens to keep their family sizes within the allowed limit, and to report on their neighbors if they suspected anyone wasn’t following the rules. Along with forced abortions and sterilizations, the propaganda effort ensured that most of the population would abide by the policy, seeing it as a necessary and good measure for the health of their families and their future.
One Child Nation is Wang’s personal and journalistic exploration of the ramifications of the One Child era, both in China and around the world. She speaks with a midwife in China who had to perform abortions on thousands of women; an artist who depicts the grisly results of the policy; and a couple in the US who help adopted Chinese children try to reunite with their biological families, many of whom sold children to orphanages for adoption abroad because they already had a child. It is a harrowing film that confronts and confounds Western ideas about agency, choice, reproduction, and bodily autonomy.
I recently spoke with Wang by phone about the risks she took making the film, the hot-button topics it confronts, and what she learned about propaganda while she worked on it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
China’s one child policy had massive ramifications, but it’s also very personal for you. Why did you decide to make a film about it?
I was really excited, because I became pregnant. After I realized I was pregnant, I started noticing how protective I became. I was super aware of the dangers around me, wanting to protect the life I was carrying. And it was then I started thinking about the one child policy and the women who had no control over their safety and their child’s safety and their pregnancies, not knowing what would happen with the pregnancy, and also what would happen if the child was born.
So I started asking my mom what it was like for her when she was pregnant with me — what she experienced and what she witnessed. She told me the stories I thought I knew when I was a child, but because I never really processed the information, for the first time I learned from my mom the brutality of the one child policy. The tragedy even happened within my own family, so that made me want to explore what else I didn’t know about the policy growing up.
Digging into this policy poses a lot of risks for you, personally, as well as for the people you talked to. People who spoke to you could risk retaliation from the Chinese government, which has monitored and questioned for your own work in the past. How do you approach that?
I think the experience of making Hooligan Sparrow taught me a lot of lessons about how to deal with the risk, how to avoid government attention, and how to stay under the radar. [Note: Wang’s 2016 documentary Hooligan Sparrow tells the story of a Chinese activist who must flee local governments, national secret police, and her own neighbors after seeking justice for six girls who were abused by their elementary school principal.]
But at first [when I started making One Child Nation], I didn’t know if I would be able to go back to China. I haven’t been back since I made Hooligan Sparrow. There was a possibility that the government would not allow me to enter the country. We were afraid if I were allowed to go in, as soon as I showed up the police would show up, and it would not only jeopardize the filmmaking but also endanger the subject.
So before we did anything, I reached out to my friend Jialing [Zhang] in China, who I met in grad school at NYU. She moved back after she graduated. I asked her if she would be willing to collaborate with me. So she said yes, and we started doing underground research in China. After a while, I decided to test the waters and see how the government would react if I went back.
So I went with my husband and our 2-month-old infant. The idea was, I’m not going to try to film outside of my family or in public. So we simply tried to visit and stay within my family. Of course I filmed my family, but we were waiting to see how the government would react. Luckily, there wasn’t direct confrontation or any contact from the government. So I was encouraged enough to go back again. The next time, I went broader, to go out and film outside of my village.
After that, they actually invited me to show my second film in China, so I knew that it passed through censorship. That film [2017’s I Am Another You] was about America’s homelessness and mental illness. I figured I could use that opportunity and take the trip to present my second film, but also film more.
So I kept going back. Each time, before I went, we would take a lot of extreme precautions. That includes my co-director [Zhang], who moved to the US and lives in Massachusetts. We would create a lot of detailed plans of how to avoid the government and surveillance. When I would go, she would monitor me using a GPS so she could see where I was, down to every second, every minute. With our producers, we created some emergency plans for if I lost touch with her for two hours, or three hours, or 12 hours — for each situation, we had a response, like a list of on-the-ground people who could help me if anything happened. And then if the situation escalated, we would have an outer circle of institutions and funders in the US that we could reach out to. It was a really complicated process.
It sounds like it. And most people probably don’t think about filmmakers having to deal with these sorts of risks. Your subjects had to deal with them too — how did you approach them, knowing you were asking them to take a risk just by participating? I’m thinking in particular of the woman you talk to at length, who was a midwife and also performed forced abortions.
We both lived in the same village. It was a small village, like 2,000 people. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody has the same last name. It always felt like a big family. She is very close friends with my grandma and she saw me grow up. So when I went to see her, she was really, really happy. I think you can see that from the film, because she is genuinely happy when she says, “Oh, you came, I haven’t seen you for a few years. How are you doing?”
What surprised me was how open she was. I went in expecting what she would say. I even thought I was going to ask her a bunch of warm-up questions and try to get to the difficult ones later. So the first question I asked was, “How many babies did you deliver throughout your career?” And I expected that she would be very proud and say, “Oh, I delivered this many people, this many babies.” Instead, she didn’t remember. But she did keep a record of how many abortions she did, which was 50,000 to 60,000.
That really surprised me. What she continued sharing with me was even more striking, her own trauma and guilt.
Looking back, I think she was open partly because we know each other and I was an insider. I grew up there. But I think the other probable reason was I wanted to know her experience and what she witnessed, and wasn’t asking her to criticize the policy. It wasn’t like I went with an agenda or something. So I think that probably also made her feel comfortable to talk about it.
The lack of agenda in a film like this is striking, because you do have a point of view about the policy, but you’re focused more on the human toll of the policy, both in China and around the world. How did you think about who your audience was, and how did you want them to be affected?
The Chinese audience is really, really important to us, because as a Chinese citizen myself, I know how long it took me to become aware of my history because of the restrictions on information within China. So, I really hope that Chinese people can see the film and be aware of what happened, because that’s the first step of any change: to have awareness.
But I also know how hard it would be to show this film in China. It’s nearly impossible to have any official platform. The only way that the film could eventually get to the Chinese audience is for it to get a lot of exposure outside of China. That was true with Hooligan Sparrow: When the film gained enough exposure outside of China, then Chinese people heard of it and wanted to see it. Eventually, we were able to allow underground screenings and independent film festival showings, and also make the film available for anybody who wanted to see it. [Without that outside exposure,] there was little chance that Hooligan Sparrow would be seen there.
When I first saw One Child Nation, it was with an American audience, at the Sundance Film Festival. Two things really stuck out for me as matters that might make American viewers think. One of them is the way the film shows the effects of China’s one child policy on American adoptions of Chinese babies, which is very tangled and complicated and eye-opening.
The other is the way the film treats the question of abortion, which is such a hot-button topic in American politics. It’s a truly challenging film no matter what your political leanings are. How did you approach that topic, especially knowing that American audiences would be watching the film, too?
I remember when I first came to the US and learned about the restriction on abortions in the US. I was very shocked. It wasn’t the free America that I had thought it would be. I was surprised by the government control on reproductive rights and the access to reproductive health care.
Making this film, I also had a lot of conversations with people about the topic, and I was surprised. Sometimes people couldn’t see how forced state abortions and the state limiting access to abortions are quite similar; they are both the government trying to control women’s bodies and trying to control women’s reproductive rights.
I hope that the film reminds people what would happen if their government takes away women’s choice, or any individual’s choice. And sadly I think it’s happening in China, it’s happening in the US, and it’s happening in a lot of countries throughout the world, where women do not have the freedom to make their own reproductive decisions.
As you’ve been talking to audiences about the film, how have they reacted?
Throughout the past several months, we’ve had a lot of screenings across the country and internationally as well. I have been really glad to see among the audiences a lot of people were able to see the message of the film, that it’s about giving people choice, whether it’s over their reproductive rights or in general. The one child policy showed how entire nations felt helpless, that they couldn’t have a choice, they couldn’t have options. I was glad to see that the film resonates with people outside of China and reminds them to reflect on their own society and their own government’s policy.
Some people might watch the film and ask, “Well, why didn’t people stand up against the government? Why didn’t they assert some kind of opposition to this policy?” As you worked on the film, did you come to an answer about that?
Yeah, absolutely. It was a question that I struggled with, and one the audience might have. It’s something that I struggled to understand and to make sense of, because I saw how traumatized and pained people were [as a result of the policy], including my own family. But then they all supported the policy. So for a long time I tried to find the answer to why they did that.
Eventually, I came to the understanding that it was really because of decades of indoctrination that often even changed the people’s sense of right and wrong. They were taught that the policy was for the greater good. It’s for the benefit of humanity, for the earth, for the planet, to limit resources, to control the population. So [the message was that] anybody who disobeyed the policy was being selfish and illegal, and even, to some extent, not a good human being.
So I think after that, I questioned myself: If I were them, what decision would I make? What choice would I make? I couldn’t say with 100 percent confidence that I would be able to reflect, to question, or to resist if I had been in that society, in that culture, under that value system and indoctrination for my whole life. If I never had the opportunity to access different information, rather than the government’s narrative.
And that’s also why I felt it’s really important for Chinese people to understand their own history. Not only the narrative, but the version of the history that was presented by the government.
When you’re raised with propaganda and images all around you telling you one thing, it’s hard to think another way.
Yes. And memory is such a crucial part of our identity, and a nation’s identity. How a nation remembers its past determines what the nation could be. Sadly, I think a lot of the history was redone by the authorities — and not only in China, but in any government that’s the same.
You started the project as a personal quest; what did you learn from it?
One Child Nation was a process of unlearning what I was taught, to unlearn what I learned in the past. It was a real discovery of the past. And I think the biggest lesson that I learned — there were so many surprises and discoveries that I had while making this film, but the biggest lesson was that I have more awareness of how propaganda works and how a government could manipulate and shape people’s minds to advance its own agenda.
One Child Nation opened in select theaters on August 9.