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China’s “one-child” policy lasted from 1979 to 2015 (to be replaced by the two-child maximum, still in force) and is revealed in this powerful documentary to be a cruel and tragic experiment in big-government meddling, a colossal and yet intimate abuse of the family by the state whose aftereffects have still to be reckoned with.
Film-makers Zhang Lynn and Nanfu Wang were themselves products of the one-child policy, although Nanfu reveals that her own family benefited – if that is the word – from an early softening of the approach for rural communities, allowing a second child if the first was a girl. This horribly institutionalised sexism naturally bred generations of women encouraged to see themselves as inferior, and created state-sanctioned market forces for infanticide and child-trafficking. Baby girls were routinely abandoned or sold to “orphanages” that would sell them on to customers in the west – a practice horribly comparable to Ireland’s Magdalen laundries but on a more massive scale.
Meanwhile, an entire propaganda culture grew up around this idealised one-child family: on playing cards, stickers, posters and in travelling opera performances. The film shows how China’s contemporary artists have drawn on this strident tradition to create their own bitterly satirical artworks, such as The Thoughts of Chairman Mao, by Peng Wang, which shows individual pages of the little red book, each horribly emblazoned with an aborted foetus. (The film’s most unwatchable section shows photographs of foetuses left in rubbish dumps.)
Nanfu returns to her home town to confront the people from her village who were complicit. And she broods on how, paradoxically, depriving women of choice is still embraced by some in her adopted homeland of the United States. Nanfu’s mother says defiantly that the policy was necessary or China would have turned to “cannibalism”.
I would have liked (in a spirit of devil’s advocacy) to hear from an economist about the measurable benefits or otherwise of this brutal approach, and perhaps to ponder the climbing global population. These reservations hardly diminish the film’s force.
• One Child Nation is released in the UK on 27 September.
Source: The Guardian
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