Nanfu Wang has made a couple of my favorite documentaries of the past few years. Hooligan Sparrow followed a Chinese women’s rights activist’s journey and put both the subject and the filmmaker in danger. Her follow-up film I Am Another You took place in the US as she lived for a while with a charming young homeless man. In both films she was as much a part of the story as her subjects. In her newest film, which she co-directed with Jialing (Lynn) Zhang, she returns to China with her new baby to peel back the curtain on the country’s horrifying one child policy and the toll the decades long social experiment took on the women of China. From 1979 through 2015 the Chinese government decreed that women could only have one child, and to that end millions of women were forced to have abortions, be sterilized, or abandon their children to human traffickers. It’s a harrowing film as you hear the stories from many of the perpetrators who still think the policy made sense.
Wang speaks with a woman who was one of the state’s abortionists, whose office regularly kidnapped women and aborted their children as late as the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy. She now works as a fertility specialist. Wang also talks with local a official who was in charge of the kidnappings of these women for abortions and thousands of others who were forcibly sterilized at the orders of the state. And closer to home she talks with an uncle who took a baby girl to the market in a basket and left her to die so that he could have a son, and an aunt who gave her daughter to a human trafficker. Wang also talks with some of the people who were jailed for “human trafficking.” Their crime was that they found discarded and abandoned girls (mostly) and sold them to orphanages who would then sell them to foreigners. Many children were also taken from their families by the state and placed there, so the orphanages made up backstories since no one would adopt a stolen child.
So in the upside down world of China, the abortionists were the bad guys and the human traffickers were the good ones. And the propaganda campaign that the government waged to make sure everyone believed that the policy was for the good of the country was relentless. Town walls were covered with slogans like “Fewer and better births, good for the nation and people,” and also more ominous ones like “For those who should but refuse to practice forced abortion of a second child, six other families will be punished as well.” Television programs sang songs about its correctness. School children put on shows about how it was going to save the country. And many of the people Wang speaks with believe the policy was responsible for bringing the country out of poverty and was a necessary evil.
Both Wang and Zhang were born during this period, and they both have younger brothers. Wang’s father stopped the forced sterilization of her mother after her birth, and she had another child after waiting the state sanctioned 5 years. Zhang’s parents paid fines to have sons. But Zhang told me that growing up with siblings made her carry a label and feel shame since the propaganda was so pervasive even in school where the textbooks taught that one child was good for the country. Making this film made her think a lot about the relationship between individual choice and national agenda. “What choices do you have when somebody is telling you to sacrifice for the common good of the country? What is the common good?” She hopes that the film with make people think hard about the power of propaganda where you can ask questions but the answers are given to you by the state. Late in the film Wang talks about the abortion restrictions and laws currently being passed in the US being very much like the ones in China, all about taking women’s autonomy away and giving it to the state. It’s a sobering film for so many reasons and should be seen widely.